Finding Family with the Wilderpeople

wilderpeople ricky and hec

Historian and legal expert Ariela J. Gross opens her 2008 work What Blood Won’t Tell with details from the life of Alexina Morrison, an enslaved person in Jefferson Parish Louisiana. In 1857, Morrison fled her master and found herself imprisoned in a local jail, where she convinced the authorities that she was actually white; she had been kidnapped and unfairly sold into slavery, she told them.  William Dennison, the local jailer, believed Morrison and took her into his own family, gradually integrating her into white society where she attended balls and other social functions. Eventually, her master James White sued to return her to her previous status.  The case, Morrison vs. White, went … [Read more...]

Black History Month Part V: “Race” and Its Kid Brother, “Whiteness”

al jolson blackface

Every summer, ToM contributors revisit works that influenced them and meditate on how they've held up over the years as part of our Dog Days Classics series. These works have included everything from John Brooke's study on the roots of Mormon esoterica to Mike Royko's epic book  on Chicago mayor Richard Daley. But a quick look at our category cloud makes it clear that "race" stands out as a major theme at ToM, with "whiteness" not far behind.  While we've spent a good deal of time looking at Asian-American and Latino/a studies, African-American history has been a frequent subject for the site as well, so it's no surprise that Dog Days pieces have also touched on the idea of "race" and its … [Read more...]

Black History Month Part II: Reclaiming sporting culture


It's hard to think of a sport more awash in images of blonde blue eyed Californians than surfing. Depiction's of surfing from Bruce Brown's "The Endless Summer", fifty years old this year, trafficked in the idea of white surfers traversing the globe to the astonishment of Asian and African onlookers. The standard had been set by the 1966 classic; films and popular culture followed. Yet as Scott Laderman demonstrates in his recent work Empire in Waves, these images rest on a false narrative, the truth is that white Europeans and Americans appropriated surfing from other cultures and then due to segregation and other forces, cast its image in whiteness.  Others have also questioned the … [Read more...]

The Lakewood Plan: Homeownership, Taxes, and Diversity in Postwar Suburbia

Lakewood: Times Change, Values Don't | Photo: Laurie Avocado/Flickr/Creative Commons

If you're driving about 15 or 20 miles south of Central Chennai in Bali, don't be surprised if you find yourself in a pseudo Golden State. Sure the "road buckles and heaves" and you'll pass farmers in "Madras-checked dhoties" resting outside their palm tree roofed huts; goats might even meander about without molestation. But then, noted the Economist in an essay on international suburbanization, one turns a corner and "arrives in California." Not just any part of the state either, but specifically Lakewood Enclave, a Balinese subdivision named after its pioneering namesake from Southern California.1 Lakewood and other Southern California suburbs like those in Orange County have asserted an … [Read more...]

Generational Narcissism?: Less than Zero, Gen X, and Why Millenials Really Aren’t All That Bad.


Over the past couple months or to be more accurate years, numerous commentators have bemoaned the apparent narcissism of millennials. Social media, more than one study claims, has made “twenty somethings” more self-absorbed than their predecessors and many employers claim millennials exhibit an unprecedented sense of entitlement. Perhaps even worse, earlier this year Fortune published an article asserting that millennials even lacked rudimentary talent, falling short in skills like “literacy (including the ability to follow simple instructions), practical math, and — hold on to your hat — a category called ‘problem-solving in technology-rich environments.’” A recent incident in which a group … [Read more...]

Rachel Dolezal and the Racial Trickster: A Local Perspective on Crossing and Crafting Identities


I live in Spokane, WA, where I write and teach about race, identity, and social justice. I have never met Rachel Dolezal, who also resides in Spokane, though we have at least a few acquaintances and causes in common. My own visceral reaction to the Dolezal story is tied to but also goes beyond the fact that I am a resident of Spokane as a well as a student of race. In part it’s a reaction to the racial crossing and how she did it. But it’s also a disappointment because she had been effective as an activist on the local scene.  Dolezal was an effective and cogent organizer and talking head—bodies and boots matter, and she did bring them out. (Then again, I don't want to discount organizations … [Read more...]

Dog Days Classics: Rethinking Wowee Zowee


Back in 1997, Stephen Malkmus was asked in an interview when it was that Pavement sold out or tried to make their sound more accessible. To the interviewer's surprise, the indie hero said Slanted and Enchanted, the band's celebrated 1992 debut. “We made a bunch of singles before that,” Malkmus recalled. Slanted might seem dissonant and avant-garde in retrospect, he said, “but then I felt it was such a pop album.” Indeed, songs like "Summer Babe" and "Zurich Is Stained" were actually lovely pop nuggets in comparison to the crazy, caustic noise rock that Pavement offered in the very earliest years of their career. To Malkmus, if not to many critics and fans, Slanted was just the first step … [Read more...]

1996: The Year R.E.M. and Pearl Jam Committed Suicide

e-bow the letter

The year was 1996—almost 20 years ago, kids—and the alternative revolution was in its dead-ender stage. Kurt Cobain was gone, the Smashing Pumpkins ruled with a cross-breed of Rush and Journey (before it was cool), and the ska and swing revivals were just around the corner. That year, two of the biggest bands of the early 1990s came out with albums that basically killed their careers: R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Pearl Jam’s No Code. Both albums met with mixed reviews from critics. Each earned an unenthusiastic 6 out of 10 rating from SPIN magazine, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi topped both best-of and worst-of lists for the year. Two bands who were at the height of fame—both of … [Read more...]

Surfing for Freedom: Black Surfers and Reclaiming Cultural History in Los Angeles


In 1991's surfing bromance "Point Break," former Big Ten quarterback and F.B.I. agent Johnny Utah infiltrates a notorious ring of "surfing bank robbers" led by the late great Patrick Swayze's Bodhi (short for Buddhavista of course). They play beach football, go night surfing, and eventually end their relationship in a confrontation on an Australian beach as 100 foot waves from a fifty year storm crash on the beach. "Point Break's" ridiculousness has long been acknowledged, from Keanu Reaves performance -- "I am an F.B.I. agent!" -- to Swayze's mix of extreme sports and white Eastern mysticism; yet the film, and others like it, also perpetuate a problematic vision of surfing and a form of … [Read more...]

The Gonzo Vision of Lana Del Rey

lana del rey with flowers in her hair

I do not know for a fact that Lizzy Grant, the canny songwriter behind Lana Del Rey, secretly earned an American Studies degree at SUNY-Geneseo, but all the evidence points in that direction. Lana Del Rey is, of course, the pop ventriloquist act who burst onto the scene in 2012—a ginger-haired gun moll with big hoop earrings, a moody disposition, and a lavish taste for 1960s torch-song atmospherics. Del Rey is a character invented by Grant: a full package of image, attitude, and sound that results in a familiar yet singular image. Indeed, her brand is that of the femme fatale in its most frankly Platonic form. Grant’s bio reads like an uptown-downtown hipster inversion of Jack … [Read more...]