28 March 2011

the imprisonment of a race.

Last Friday I trekked out to Princeton for the Center for African American Studies' conference "The Imprisonment of a Race." The conference was the brainchild of an undergraduate student in molecular biology. Originally from Inglewood, California, he was troubled by the fact that more young black men go to prison than to college. He wanted to raise awareness about the issue, so he went to CAAS. He expected maybe a professor and some kids in chairs in a classroom. What he got, however, was to help plan a conference that brought together some of the finest scholars writing about race and incarceration today. It was the kind of event that made me feel grateful to live where I do; it's a gift to have access to the resources of the Ivies.

It was a major event for me. It wasn't just that it was a networking event, or that there was some really interesting research I hadn't heard about yet-- though both of those things were big draws. It was the power of sitting in a room with several hundred people having a consciousness-raising experience.  The research was provocative-- I learned about, for instance, how children are policed and conditioned to punative punisment in schools and neighborhoods, how census counting of inmates in prisons rather than their neighborhoods of origin means less money for already poor communities (reproducing the circumstances of poverty that spawn most crime), and how it costs the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania twice as much to incarcerate a prisoner than to pay the tuition of a student at Penn State. I heard the voice of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political prisoner on death row-- that he joined our conference by phone, with the periodic interuptions of a recording us telling us that the phone could be being recorded, added a potent sense of urgency to the day's proceedings. I heard research I am familiar with-- how prison riots and internal resistance show that "the carceral state is, in fact, fragile," and how during the Progressive era whites were treated for poverty, blacks were neglected because of their assumed criminal pathology, and these events laid the foundations for mass incarceration. I heard all of the familiar statistics about incarceration in America- how of 2 million people incarcerated today, half are African-American, how 5 million people in this country are disenfranchised because they committed felonies. Everyone agrees that there are evil people who should be locked up, but that locking up for non-violent crimes and racist policing have occurred on such a grand scale of inequality that it they have become less effective, and indeed, manifestations of the fundamentally undemocratic nature of American governance and a need for a continued human rights struggle.

I heard over and over again:
Prisons destroy the spirit.
Prisons do not correct behaviors.
Prisons undermine family life. 
Prisons produce fractured citizenship that encourages recidivism. 
Prisons are the only policy Democrats and Republicans seem to be able to agree on. 
Prisons-- in all their dehumanizing, demonizing, unjust incarnations-- are evidence of our society in it most realized form (Foucault). 

The word "suffering" must have been said a hundred times.

There were moments when I felt close to tears. I feel that way when I read about prisons, too-- a sense of despair that these institutions are so entrenched that they seem beyond reform. 

It was a blessing, then, to round out the day with a conversation between public intellectual Cornel West and Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow.  West offered me hope-- he reminded me that I have the power, in our my own life, to infuse my work with a spiritual motivation. He spoke plainly, truthfully: Justice is love practiced in public. Michelle Alexander reminded me that for everything I'd heard, I have a responsibility to bring awareness to the issues surrounding incarceration and inequality.  I can change the words I use- I don't have to use the term "felon" to describe the formerly-incarcerated because I can use my language to show others than I believe in forgiving those who have done their time. I can work for reform and rule shifting but I can also work for a revolutionary transformation of culture.  There is hope in that. 

My favorite quote came from Khalilah Brown-Dean, and I think I might have to embroider it to hang over my desk as I write my dissertation:
"My research is my advocacy."

10 March 2011

dispatches from comps, part 2.

"If we renounce a conspiracy of silence that simplifies popular culture, expunging its internal hierarchies, complexities, or disagreements, we must also break the silences that help us reproduce the simplicity of politics more generally. Politics is not, except in an official version, about the triumph of one class, idea, great man, nation, world region, or socioeconomic system. As a struggle over power, politics has always been about coalition and conflict along many lines of hierarchy; it has always involved the transformative power of discourse and confrontation. 
Politics is also about hegemony, as process and outcome. In the making of nation-states, the discursive, intellectual, military, and political struggles of Latin American peoples, rural and otherwise, were central to defining both success and failure. Only by excavating the archaeological layers of these struggles, embedded in successful and unsuccessful hegemonic outcomes, can we understand present-day institutions and conflicts. 
As was the case with Xochiapulco's bones, excavation is always a two-part process. First you dig, and then you struggle to identify what you found. We will never all agree on what the bones are, or why their identity matters. But historians can and must continue to dig and to place what we find in relation to present-day concerns, issues, and debates. In so doing, our labor in articulating past and present remakes both, endlessly."

-Florencia Mallon, Peasant and Nation: The Making of Postcolonial Mexico and Peru, 1995.

I love Mallon's thoughtful and elegant prose. It gives her the power to be boldly provocative in a way that seems natural and seamless.  She's so persuasive in her application of subaltern studies as a means of tempering the teleological tendancy of institutional scholarship. I know struggle with teleology, as do, I think, many scholars in the New Institutionalism: how do we understand institutions and policy without their power seeming inevitable or unchallenged, permanent even?  Mallon's argument appeals to the social justice mission I see as intrinsic to my own work. I love her sense of hope and power- historians can change things. 

I love what happens when I put the historian into that equation-
"In doing so, our labor in articulating past and present remakes us, endlessly." 

A slightly different use of history than Hartz. I love how everything always fits together.

08 March 2011

rediscovering the strokes.

Every once and a while I come across things that I missed out on because I was Mormon. I say "because I was Mormon" but I really mean "because I had what I felt was a really good excuse to be uptight and obnoxious."  

Anyways, my high school boyfriend liked The Strokes. We spent a lot of time driving around in his Mom's black Pontiac Grand Prix listening to The Strokes really loud. It bugged the shit out of me. The distortion, at such a high volume, provoked comments like "I can't feel The Spirit with this music so loud."  I was very good at feeling The Spirit while making out or watching rated R movies, but god, that rock and roll!

I know. Seriously.  More than Mormonism, it was an early response to what would become a presumably lifelong problem of dating guys who lord their superior musical taste over me in this form of really annoying auditory patriarchy that makes me want to do irresponsible things like listen to Celine Dion.

So last night I was listening to The Strokes' new single with a friend (like that past boyfriend, another musically inclined, blonde haired, blue eyed guy- types, much?) and it hit me that in my Mormonness, in my resistance to my boyfriend's taste, I had missed out on something. And yep, it turns out that The Strokes are pretty good. Especially in relation to so much of the indie stuff that's out today-- they've got body, they've sincere, they've got buoyancy, and in light of a lot of the crap we were listening to at the turn of the century, they've proven pretty durable. 

This time around, I am the one turning the music up.

05 March 2011

the joy of pickling.

Back in early January, my best friend and I supped at The Foundry in Somerville, Mass. It was one of those divine meals that you dream about months later.  Pickle-lovers from way back (her dad makes the most divine dills!), we just had to have the farmstand pickles. Oh, how we devoured them. 

Not too long ago, I was at Devil's Den with my roommate. I was going on and on about how much I love their housemade pickles- I had been at Devil's Den the day before, also raving about them- and he was gracious enough to ask the waiter for my very own dish of them. What a moment- my own little dish! 

Sensing a theme- pickles, in 2011, were bringing me an awful lot of food joy- I took on making my own pickles.

I started with reliable Deb's bread and butter pickles and her cider vinegar pickled carrots. The night I made the bread and butters, I served them with Brooklyn Bowl Fried Chicken. Four friends, sitting around the table, eating a whole jar of divine pickles-- does it get much better than that? The pickled carrots were milder, sweeter, and grew on me over time.

Next I tried Mark Bittman's dill pickles from my beloved Essential New York Times Cookbook. It took four or five days for the salt brine to go from salty to perfectly pickley. The dill is subtle, overpowered by intense buttery garlic flavor (so what if I didn't half the garlic when I halved the recipe!). They are concentrated little flavor bombs, packing powerful savory punch. The cucumbers stayed refreshingly crisp.

Needless to say, I am totally converted to home pickling. I've been doing about a pound of vegetables at a time, keeping the batches manageable and allowing us to rotate through them quickly since I haven't taken on any complex canning techniques. Pickling is the perfect break from studying. I can ready a batch in about twenty minutes. For the cost of a jar of grocery store pickles- squishy, soft, boring grocery store pickles- I can make three or four jars of homemade pickles. They would be the perfect 

So is it surprising that I am eagerly awaiting the shipment of a book called The Joy of Pickling? Hardly.

04 March 2011

dispatches from comps, part 1.

Since I'm busybusybusy studying for my comprehensive exams, I thought I'd share with you some choice snippets along the way.

"The liberal society analyst is destined in two ways to be a less pleasing scholar than the Progressive: he finds national weaknesses and he can offer no absolute assurance on the basis of the past that they will be remedied. He tends to criticize and then shrug his shoulders, which is no way to become popular, especially in an age like our own. But even if there were not an integrity to criticism which ought to be kept inviolate at any cost, this mood is not without constructive virtue. It reminds us of a significant fact: that instead of recapturing our past, we have got to transcend it. As for a child who is leaving adolescence, there is no going home again for America."

-Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955), 32.

I wondered how this quote could be read for our own times, when it seems like everyone's a hopeless cynical critic of our national state of affairs (perhaps I must rethink my understanding of the 1950s). It is useful to remember that American history should be used not as an aspiration, that there is no "return to normalcy," that the solutions of the past are not always the best fit for the present. What a strange and critical task for historians and citizens alike, to love the past but not idealize it; to learn the lesson of Lot's wife and look forward at the crucial moments. Simpler times, they never were. Should we think less of what needs reforming and think more of what can be formed? Can inventiveness replace restoration? Can we transcend our past?