Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Penumbra Theater

Laurel Schwartz

“Theater is the way I express my citizenship. It’s who I am.” – Lou Bellamy

Over break, I watched a segment on Rock Center about Minnesotan director, Lou Bellamy. Mr. Bellamy is the founder of Penumbra Theater, the largest African American theater in the country. Mr. Bellamy is a very large figure in the Theater world in Minnesota, but he is an unsung hero of sorts outside of the Midwest. The first time I watched the segment, I was ecstatic to see him receiving national recognition in the mass media. Even though I grew up with him as a prominent public figure in my life, it seems as though each new interview I watch and each new play I go see, I learn more and more about him. He literally has an unlimited supply of stories.
Penumbra Theater immediately came to mind when trying to find something to write a blog post about. After class on Tuesday, I went back and rewatched the segment. I quickly saw a connection between Mr. Bellamy and Tiya Miles. In class, we saw an interview where Miles explained that her desire to write a book about Afro-Cherokee families stemmed from her own desire to learn and educate others about her own family history. Mr. Bellamy explains similar motives for creating Penumbra Theater. Bellamy comments on his trip to a southern plantation saying, “I began to look at things and get a little angry about all these things being slave-made and this great amount of wealth that was a mast because of it. And, an old black lady told me to ‘just take the good.’ She said, ‘Just let it go. All you’re hurting is yourself, son. Come on let it go.’” Here, Bellamy’s desire to educate came from learning about his past and trying to discover how to change the future. Ultimately, he found a catalyst for change through theater.
One theme that stuck me in the readings for this unit was the idea that telling and finding stories helps up discover things about our past. We saw how architecture provided insight into family life, how paintings showed the political opinion of the country, and how family history helps define individuals. Lou Bellamy seeks to do the same thing with his theater. Through theater, he has provided a voice for hundreds of actors, playwrights and directors who may not otherwise have their voices heard. Through theater, he can tell stories much like Miles can tell stories through a book.
Being someone who has grown up in theater, both on and off stage, I have always felt a special connection to what theater as an art form is able to accomplish. Mr. Bellamy brings up the fact that the audience is forced to step into the world of the play. The plays are directed as if the audience is entirely black, so if an audience member is not familiar with the culture they are forced to BECOME familiar with it through the play. I feel like theater, Penumbra especially, is a great way to explore stories that often go untold.

Here is the link to the clip:

Opportunity Disparity

             The beginning of this semester has brought us from a long ago history with the discussion of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings to the more recent issues influencing our sociocultural and political landscape today, as with the Occupy movement. I find myself continually drawn back to the discussion of the 1 and 99%, unable to accurately pinpoint where my opinion falls. While I generally do not like to discuss my particular political viewpoints, particularly in a strongly politically liberal college environment, I believe that knowing my viewpoints may further explain my difficulty with the discussion. I consider myself, most of the time, socially liberal and fiscally conservative, or, in other words, standing on both sides of the Occupy movement. It seems as though this is one issue us middle of the roaders cannot stand in….well, the middle of the road on. My parents are part of the 1%, however that is far from saying that they ride by on their financial success. They live below their means and spent much of their young adult years learning to save and invest wisely. As a result of good fortune, titled scales, or what ever you would like to call it, they achieved financial success. Should they be shamed for it, goodness no! But should everyone have the fair opportunity to reach this goal? Absolutely.
The question then lies in where the line is drawn between a socialist redistribution of wealth and more a more feasible attempt, in my opinion, to narrow the opportunity gap. While it is simple to pretend the issue of the Occupy movement is simply about taxing the rich more and giving that money to the less financially advantaged 99%, the greater issue surrounding it is the ramifications of the wealth disparity trickling down to influence the everyday make-up of our social and cultural surroundings. I came across this interactive map, which gave a perspective on the issue I had not considered (http://projects.propublica.org/schools/states/ca). The map shows, by school district, what percentage of students have access to certain programs, if those programs even exist within the district. While the Claremont colleges provide us with a beautiful pink cloud affect, the reality is the elementary and secondary students living just down the street from us do not have much of the easy access to resources, both personally and through their schools, that private schools and schools in high-cost living areas do. Perhaps the issue is not with the individual distribution of wealth, but the greater issue that wealth is being put back into wealth instead of into the programs that can provide American citizens with the opportunity to achieve that wealth in the first place. For example, instead of reinvesting wealth into the banking system, if we shifted some of the excess into the school systems to fund programs aimed at preparing our youth for handling the future of this country we might see greater improvement in all facets of the social and financial make-up of this country.
To touch on a point made by someone in class today about the history of slavery and its historical context, it is important to see how the issue of opportunity disparity is paradoxical: we claim to provide the American dream out of one side of our mouths while limiting the opportunity to select percentage of the population. We must become involved in the issue to disentangle the complex intricacies that created it in the first place and instigate change.
In class today Professor Delmont asked if there were things about our histories we may want to disremember…I cannot help but find myself wondering, will our great great grandchildren look back on the study of this time in American history and be embarrassed by how it was handled and wish to disremember it, or will this time serve as a point of pride and launching point for a better social landscape for tomorrow?

[Shameless plug for a tublr account I came across in my researching the 1%'s involvement in the wealth disparity issue: http://westandwiththe99percent.tumblr.com/

Architecture and Culture on the Southern Plantation

Inspired by our discussion on the architecture of Monticello I decided to try and look for some more information on the architectural origins of plantation homes from this general period of US history.Many of the plantations are modeled in elaborate style (often Greek Revival or Federal Style. Examining the features of vernacular architecture offers a way to reflect on the culture of a locality. Viewing life on these plantations from a distance would easily suggest an affluent owner. These spaces then, are also offered as a reflection of the owners ideals of power and wealth. I was eager to understand more about how this culturally influenced the perspective of the slaves living and working on these plantations. Then I found this site! It’s basically a history of Atlantic Slave Trade and slavery through images. There was one photo under the plantation scenes and settlements that I thought was interesting. (A slave plantation in Georgia.)

The reference to the plantation as a hermitage, of course, got me thinking about the Jefferson Monticello article and its function as a place of both hermitage and public display, but that’s a little beside my point. Anyways the site doesn’t claim to interpret these photos or renderings but they are useful nonetheless in examining the different spheres of public and private interaction. I searched around for more information about this particular house, then I stumbled across this site which is really interesting and I think super relevant to anyone who wants to find out more about plantation lifestyle, architecture, and its cultural significance. http://www.gwu.edu/~folklife/bighouse/panel1.html
I think when we examine homes or architecture in its historical sense, it is beneficial to examine all inhabitants. That contrasts developed between how landowners might have wanted to portray a certain visions and what these spaces meant for those working there, is important to note.

These specific accounts generally seem to include more harsh circumstances than those found at Monticello but nonetheless this site explores the design and layouts of plantations with regards to their everyday functions and the populations that lived among them. For me it helped a lot in understanding how the slaves may or may not have been able to culturally adapt to their living conditions. These slaves operated within confined conditions. That the social and functional elements of quarters were often retained despite their poor condition, whether or not slaves even made an effort to turn their quarters into a real home, what it meant that  these slaves refused to accept these spaces as simply ‘quarters’ but often determined to make them a family space etc. are very revealing of a deeper more organic sense of what values were important. These conditions directly interconnect with cultures that arose. It is necessary to understand conditions in order to understand how culture, life, and values operate and develop accordingly.   

Useful NYT "Class Matters" Graphics

Useful New York Times “Class Matters” Graphics            
In my high school Economy and Government class, we frequently read short articles from The New York Times’ 2005 “Class Matters” special section. While the data is six years old, this is nonetheless a very useful and relevant compilation of graphics. There are a few interactive graphics that lay bare the class and mobility statistics which, often used in academic texts and tossed around in politics, can be difficult to comprehend. Looking at some of these graphics really helped me make sense of our class discussion of the vanishing middle class and unequal wealth distribution.
            I was particularly interested in how a couple of the graphics related to Wayne Craven’s “The Legacy of John Calvin” and Joseph Stiglitz’s “Inequality of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.” Craven’s historical examination of the Calvinist doctrine of prosperity and its association with virtues such as hard work and thrift made for an interesting companion piece with Stiglitz’s demonstration of the ever-consolidating wealth into few hands; the two New York Times graphics I will share here further challenge the deeply embedded American doctrine, or perhaps mythos, of hard work leading directly and invariably to prosperity.
            This graphic is an interactive breakdown called “How Class Works.” It’s interesting to plug in your own data, or perhaps that of your parents, to see where you fall in terms of what The New York Times considers prestige and influence. But even without inserting any actual information, the graphic is quite telling. The four categories of the graph, which The New York Times assures us are “commonly used criteria for gauging class,” are occupation, education, income (as in money earned), and wealth (as in assets and property).
If these are indeed fairly reliable measurements of social class, I would argue that these categories on their own, even without supporting data, indicate how difficult social mobility truly is. Public education in the United States is frequently condemned as ineffective, especially in poor areas. Wealth is often passed down and difficult to accumulate if you are living paycheck to paycheck. And income and occupations are certainly suffering in the current economic crisis and job market. None of this bodes well for social mobility. 
Another of the “How Class Works” graphics is very telling. By hovering your mouse over variously colored fifths of the U.S. population, ranging from Top Fifth to Bottom Fifth, you can chart where people started in 1988 and where they ended up in 1998. Few of the dark brown squares in the Top Fifth continue to dominate the Top Fifth ten years later, and hardly appear in the bottom two fifths at all. Conversely, the off-white Bottom Fifth squares pretty much stay put, with a lone square making it to the Top Fifth. This graphic demonstrates quite a lack of social mobility, questioning the beloved Alger expression that one can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

By Theresa Iker

Monday, January 30, 2012

All American Cuisine

After reading Vicki Ruiz’s article, Citizen Restaurant, which dealt in some respect with the Americanization of traditional Mexican cuisine, I began to think about what could constitute “American” food. Apple pie? Hotdogs? Southern barbeque? Upon brief inspection of that list, however, it becomes clear that the origins of American cuisine are just as much of a melting pot as the “American” ethnicity.

Histories of both apple pie and hot dogs have roots in German cuisine, with one of the earliest recipes for apple pie dating as far back as 1381, centuries before the American colonies were even a glint in England’s eye. Pork, along with sheep and cattle, was not even present in the Americas until Europeans came to the new world, and while pork barbeque quickly became a staple in southern food traditions, the cooking method has vague origins in Caribbean and Spanish cuisines. 

A more appropriate term than “Americanization” of certain foods would be the “industrialization” of ethnic cuisines, as America has become a fast food nation and the mass production and subsequent de-authentification of certain foods what one is really referring to with that term. The idea of the Americanising Mexican cuisine in a cultural sense is actually a bit ironic, as Mexico is in North America and the food has much more similarity than apple pie, hot dogs, or barbeque to what should be considered quintessential American food: Native American food.

According to the Digital History website, pumpkin pie and popcorn are the more appropriate symbols of truly American cuisine, featuring vegetables such as corn and squash that were staples in the Native American diet but unknown to Europeans until the discovery of the New World. Tomatoes, potatoes, yams, cassava, manioc, and many varieties of beans also make the list of foods the Americas introduced to Europe, with corn, squash, and beans comprising the trifecta of an American Indian diet. Interestingly, those three foods are interdependent on one another for germination and plot upkeep as well. When cultivated on the same plot, the vegetables utilize each others’ nutrients and structure to grow more efficiently together than apart (perhaps one could draw an optimistic connection between the symbiotic relationship of the grain, legume, and gourd to the relationship between the many varied ethnicities that make up the American demographic?) Native Americans also ate an abundance of wild meats, and even today traditional recipes can be found for grilled prairie dog, mutton, bison, venison, possum, beaver, and a slue of fish species at online. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Welcome to AMST 103 Spring 2012!

Welcome to AMST 103 Spring 2012!  With this blog we'll be asking you to find interesting articles, videos, and/or websites related to that connect to our class readings and discussions.  Please e-mail with any questions.  We look forward to a fun semester.