Stuart Hall (1932 – 2014)

I only met Stuart Hall once, as a star-struck graduate student autograph-seeker. But he changed my life freshman year, when reading his analysis of Thatcherism derailed me from an intended major in political science, and, indeed, from any lasting version of academic disciplinarity. From my own displaced point of origin in Britain’s former empire, I ‘got’ his drive to use scholarship as a ticket out of Jamaica, make it to the center of power and privilege, and piss in the soup. “Marxism without guarantees” for me translated, and still translates, into Marxism without masculinism, Marxism without subordinating race to class, an open-ended and restlessly questioning “criticism of everything existing,” include Marxism itself.
I was a second-generation Hall student; taught his work by Henry Abelove, Michael Denning, David Parker, Hazel Carby and Paul Gilroy. Between graduating college and starting my doctorate I spent a master’s year roaming the halls of Birmingham, soaking up the multicultural ambiance of the Center he had built and then left, always in search of the next conjuncture. Birmingham Cultural Studies circa 1995 was totally punk: cigs in that treacherous stairwell; late night bull sessions on overdue Skunk Anansie term papers, magic trips to the Gay Village, wondering what a mobile phone was and who could afford one. I didn’t take a degree, but I left with something better: meeting Melikka Mehdid, David Parker, Gargi Battacharya, Tom Everett, Rajinder Dudrah.
I’ve loved reading about Hall’s early days in the 1950s: jazz fiend, dapper hipster, literary critic and New Left lion. A fierce polemicist who apparently never made lasting enemies, and avoided left factionalism and left melancholia to the end. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., called him Britain’s Du Bois, but I say let Hall be measured by the tape of his own life, and in relation to the contemporary moment that was the animating force of his love and struggle. Which means we are the revolutionaries, and this is the moment we have been waiting for.
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“HOW YOU SOUND??”: The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry

“Hermes, the blacker art…”

Sounding Out!

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This post is dedicated to the memory of Amiri Baraka, who passed away on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.

I began writing this post while my wife, Sarah, was at a conference on writing curriculum for high school literature. Over the phone one night she asked how to help students better understand the language of Shakespeare, and at a loss for suggestions (not only because I don’t study early modern drama), I recalled my own adolescent struggles with Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. I recalled well-intentioned teachers who gave me recordings, telling me that they would help me get an “ear” for Shakespeare’s language—yet all I remember, maybe all I learned, while listening to the Caedmon recording of Macbeth on vinyl, was that, to my mid-1990s ear, Shakespeare (anachronistically) sounded like Star Wars (which appeared 15 years after the 1960 Caedmon album).

My high school confusion has not…

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The Amalgamation Waltz

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Tavia Nyong’o, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

In The Amalgamation Waltz, Tavia Nyong’o provides a fresh take on the seemingly simple but in fact profound questions of ‘who can separate us?’ and ‘who can bring us together?’ This vital work helps to explain our obsession with amalgamation and does a fine job of theorizing the politics and poetics of race as they are performed in American culture from the birth of the nation to the election of Barack Obama.

—Jennifer DeVere Brody, Stanford University

Tavia Nyong’o’s deft and fluid analytical focus shifts with ease from the oratorical texts of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln to hip hop artists Missy Elliott and Public Enemy, from contemporary visual art (the ‘Mining the Museum’ and ‘Legacies’ exhibitions) to the theatre of Suzan-Lori Parks and John Sims’ film ‘Recoloration Proclamation.’ The Amalgamation Waltz is as beautifully written as it is cogent.

—Daphne Brooks, Princeton University

The Amalgamation Waltz performs an important hybridization of critical race and queer theory.

Contemporary Theatre Review

In his stunning new book The Amalgamation Waltz, Nyong’o compels us to confront the problematics of this particular dialectic—namely, the nascent talk of racial transcendence alongside the entrenchment of white supremacy and racialized slavery.

Theatre Journal

Nyong’o’s work is full of . . . insights, which reflect current thinking. The original and provocative element of the book is his critique of the idea of the hybrid person—understood here as a mixed-race offspring of a heterosexual marriage even if perhaps the married state is sometimes absent—as the cure for race relations from the colonial period to the present.

Early American Literature

The Amalgamation Waltz is well argued and engaging. Nyong’o’s impressive scholarship and deft rhetorical circumventions are compelling, and his conclusions will prove valuable to scholars from a wide range of disciplines.

African American Review

Henry and Grover, Drowning in a Bathtub

My new post up over at Bully Bloggers, on Thoreau and the government shutdown.

Bully Bloggers

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By Tavia Nyong’o

“I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” — Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform

“My thoughts are murder to the state.” — Henry David Thoreau, 19th century American writer, conservationist, and proto-anarchist.

Teaching Thoreau’s great essay on ‘Resistance to Civil Government‘ during a partial shutdown of the US federal government is an occasion for feelings of great ambivalence. The scholar Henry Abelove has called Thoreau’s prose persona seductive. And I, like Abelove, very much want to be seduced. But how can I extol the worldview of this fearless forerunner of queer anarchism while the anti-government wing of the governing party allows the sick and needy to go uncared for, the statistics on the jobless to go uncollected, the safety of our food supply to…

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EMP Pop Conference 2013 NYC Wrap-up

Finally placating my FOMS (fear of missing something), EMP Pop Conference NYC 2013 was streamlined to a single sequence of panels over the course of two days, allowing me to attend every single panel. Of course, the conference happened concurrently in four other cities: LA, Cleveland, New Orleans, and Seattle. But somehow out of sight was (at least temporarily) out of mind, and the range and depth of conversations we had at 721 Broadway Thursday and Friday held focus for the duration.

As an organizer of the event, I’m particularly proud of the mix of academics, journalists, musicians, dancers, deejays, producers and bloggers that we were able to bring together, often on the same panel. Shout out to Dr. Imani Kai Johnson who brought together legendary dancers and DJs for a revelatory (10 am!) discussion about the underground house dance tribe. EMP stalwarts appeared alongside some first timers, references to Kant and cumbia were fair game, and to my pleasurable surprise, folks defied the “regional” concept behind the 5-city theme, and came to NYC from as far away as Toronto, North Carolina, and London. That people value EMP Pop Conference enough to travel to it, sometimes just to participate from the audience, speaks to the unique status of this event. And it’s need to continue.

Suspended over the event, of course, was the geographically proximate but emotionally wrenching distance between New York and Boston. Many of us had at least one eye on our Twitter feeds for updates on the lockdown and manhunt (thankfully now concluded without any further loss of life). Amanda Palmer’s keynote, oddly enough, spoke directly to this networked condition, and not just because she had herself made it out of Boston, despite the lockdown, to speak at EMP. Now, I personally cannot claim to know her music well or appreciate her social media influence fully. But I was very taken by the forthrightness with which she addressed the dilemmas of living a substantial portion of our lives online.

The networked condition is a topic that has been instantly banalized without being fully understood. 1993 isn’t that long ago, but as the recent New Museum show reminded us, its a world away in many ways. It’s probably not understandable at this moment: I’m still historian enough to believe that the owl of minvera flies at dusk. But that very impossibility made Palmer compelling, insofar as she refused the kind of dogmatic and premature “solutions” offered by digital pessimist and digital Pollyanna alike.

Fred Moten put it well in his remarks delivered via Skype from Scotland, when he riffed off of the dis/placement of virtual presence and called our attention to the no-place of a not-public sphere. Those who know my interest on the “non-philosopher” Francois Laruelle will appreciate how my ears always perk up at the possibilities that inhere to this kind of negation.

History is another kind of virtual presence, especially when channeled through the weird magic of recorded media. We humanists tend to treat classroom media with a mixture of contempt and mock-incompetence, a practice that always startles and offends the 13-year-old me trying to program in Basic on the computer my grandpa gave me. But as Daphne Brooks, Gayle Wald and Alex Vazquez all showed, to bring Diana Ross, Roland Rahsaan Kirk, and La Lupe into the room, even mediatically, is to reanimate musical and political forces that still retain “the fierce urgency of the now.”

Deborah Kapchan and Banning Eyre worried about the loss of affective and aesthetic complexity that digital tools and deskilling has brought to African and African-diasporic musics. I myself am not quite ready to equate quantization with baleful Westernization. Or rather, I would want to push that equation further, the better to understand black and black-influenced musics as “the critique of Western civilization,” produced by organic intellectuals like La Lupe, Kirk and, why not? maybe even the Boss (although Scott Poulson-Bryant’s presentation on Thursday argued that Stephanie Mills, not Ross, truly owns “Home,” Dorothy’s anthem from The Wiz).

“Migrant Locals” brought together a vibrant and sometimes tense conversation about convivial culture in the gentrifying city. Online and outside in the hallway, parallel conversations were being had about what it means to take Harlem, or anywhere else in NYC for that matter, as tabula rasa for migrant strivers dreaming. An open-ended, two-way diaspora has replaced older myths of immigration, with New Yorkers from Mexico, West Africa, and the Dominican Republic retaining linguistic, musical, and familial ties to home. Goods are being trafficked from the Caribbean. Mix CD shout-outs to loved ones circulate on a gift economy between a warehouse under the BQE and towns in Mexico. Houses go up in Dakar on money earned driving black cars in Brooklyn: standing empty awaiting their owners return. There is a tension, however, between the nouveau wealth and optimism of the globalized petty bourgeoisie — no longer comprador exactly, but not revolutionary either — and the multigenerational but still propertyless people of Harlem, Bed Stuy, Bushwick, Red Hook. The generosity and spirit of the “Air Shaft Rent Party” that Moten evoked persists in tension with the acquisitive and possessive familialism of some immigrant cultures (speaking from personal experience).

All to say that multiculturalism, conviviality, and musical cross-pollination (or conversely musical/cultural hermeticism) are fraught and tense issues on the ground, not mere academic or journalistic abstractions. I am attracted to José Muñoz evocation of a “brown punk commons” of those who don’t necessarily have anything obvious (like identity) in common, as one space where these issues can be aired, without of course resolving them. If genre is multiculturalism and world music’s stock in trade, punk in Muñoz’s terms is an anti-genre, a genre of the antithesis and the negation. I heard some of that negation in Kandia Crazy Horse’s totally punk account of being a black female singer in the New York “up-South” country scene. Sometimes anti-genre can sound like genre, but only to those who aren’t paying attention.

Listen to Kandia Crazy Horse, “Cabin in the Pines” here.

I’ll finish this wrap-up with a Part II soon.

About Me

I am a cultural critic and scholar whose research interests include African American Studies, American Studies, 19th and 20th century American cultural studies; Performance Studies, Queer Studies, cinema, popular music, visual art and critical theory.

Here is a link to my CV and bio; you can read my recent scholarly publications here. Here is a sample of the courses I teach.

Besides this site, you can find my writing at Bully Bloggers, SalonSocial TextThe New Inquiry, n+1, and The Feminist Wire.

Drawing by Sam Icklow.