Tag Archives: Gender

Lady Bird: Discussing Teen Angst, Class, and Early Aughts Sacramento

Like many collaborative digital projects, The Metropole is entirely assembled via remote correspondence; as co-editors, Ryan and I send daily emails between Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. In between editing submissions, we brainstorm future blog posts and trade banter about music, books, and movies. Ryan approaches pop culture with a typically Gen X cynicism, while I own my sunny millennial optimism. So in March, when Ryan suggested we review Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird as part of our Metropolis of the Month coverage of Sacramento, I was curious about how each of us would respond to the film. You might be surprised to find which one of us was the bigger fan.

Without further ado, our conversation about the film:  

AO: So, Ryan, I thought I would kick off this conversation about Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird by asking you what you enjoyed about the film.

RR: Good question. Well first of all I am, even in my middle age, always a sucker for “coming of age” stories, particularly those with difficult protagonists. In some ways, Lady Bird McPherson (Saoirse Ronin) aka Christine McPherson is somewhat reminiscent of another problematic, angsty, coming of age teen character, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) from The Edge of Seventeen. Both fail to really appreciate the problems of others around them, take their respective best friends for granted, and drive their parent(s) crazy. Critically, both characters are also very compelling. So I’m glad that there seems to be a burgeoning effort to document the travails and challenges of adolescence for young women. Whether such efforts fall into the same traps as those focusing on young male protagonists such as Richard Linklater’s highly overrated and tragically boring (just one man’s opinion, don’t @ me) Boyhood, remains to be seen. Equally important, Lady Bird, to a much greater extent than The Edge of Seventeen, gives voice to the parents in the film. What can be said about Laurie Metcalf’s performance as mother Maureen McPherson that hasn’t been discussed already? Traci Letts, as Lady Bird’s father, is great also; a newly unemployed dad with the soft touch toward his daughter that complements Metcalf’s harsher (but sometimes justified) parenting style.

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Three other things to note. I like the inclusion of Lady Bird’s brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), who may or may not have witnessed someone being stabbed in front of Sacramento City High School, and his girlfriend Shelly Yuhan (Marielle Scott). While I always enjoy movies depicting sibling relationships, both Shelly and Miguel enable the viewers to better understand Metcalf’s character, who Lady Bird believes doesn’t like her and at times feels overbearing. The truth is much more complex as both Shelly and Miguel convey to Lady Bird throughout the movie.

Second, I love both problematic boyfriends. Lucas Hedges, who plays the (obviously) closeted lead actor of the theater group Lady Bird joins, deviates from the role he played in Manchester by the Sea and provides a counterbalance to Lady Bird’s own self absorption. In contrast, Timothée Chalamet, the idiotic second boyfriend, loves to be seen smoking while reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, makes strange statements about state surveillance that sound smart at first but soon reveal a deep reservoir of stupidity, and delivers terrific pseudo-intellectual musings such as when, after Lady Bird loses her virginity to him and is upset that it wasn’t his first time, he says, “you’re going to have so much unspecial sex” in life. Oh, and he also tries to avoid capitalism by living by “bartering alone.”

Finally, as someone who attended 12 years of parochial Catholic school, I pine for uniforms and the regimentation of a religious education.

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Greta Gerwig as the titular character in Frances Ha from 2012

One does wonder if Lady Bird isn’t really a younger Frances Ha, Gerwig’s previous directorial effort, though one she co-directed with her partner Noah Baumbach.  Baumbach tends to cover similar territory, meaning the troubled nature of the nuclear family, but his films focus more on elite or academic East Coast families that struggle with deep fissures of dysfunction (The Squid and the Whale, The Meyerowitz Stories) whereas there is much more warmth in Gerwig’s film, and for that I am deeply thankful.

You know at this moment a lot of people are hailing Roseanne Barr’s return to prominence with the new season of Roseanne–notably since, as in its first iteration, it focuses on the lives of working class/lower middle class families. In Lady Bird, I think Gerwig offers a real window into a similar demographic but one we rarely hear from, the West Coast working class. Often movies, like Nebraska, emphasize the difficulties of Midwestern or Rust Belt towns and their inhabitants, but Sacramento, “the midwest of California” as Lady Bird puts it, provides a different take on this well worn topic. Plus, Laurie Metcalf stars in both, a neat little “no degrees of separation.”

All that said, I feel like you didn’t enjoy this film as much as I did. So what bugged you about Lady Bird?

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Sacramento River view from across the water from Sacramento, California’s capital city, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

AO: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Lady Bird did not resonate with me, though I do think it’s a fine film. I think it has to do with being stuck between Lady Bird and her mother. I’m past adolescence, but not yet distant enough to romanticize it. I still remember my own embarrassing decisions too vividly to comfortably watch Lady Bird make her own impulsive, selfish choices. And I’m not yet a parent who can nod along in sympathy with the McPherson’s frustration.

That said, I thought the performances were brilliant. Saoirse Ronin was magnetic, Laurie Metcalf was fierce, and the movie sparkles (with warmth, as you said Ryan) when the two of them are together on screen acting opposite one another. How many times have I been in a store with my own mother, bickering, when the perfect dress stopped us in our tracks? That moment felt so real and relatable to me.

You make a great point about the particular geography and demographic that this movie portrays. I think the use of the big blue house–which Lady Bird and her best friend admire while walking home each day, and then turns out to belong to the grandmother of Lady Bird’s first boyfriend–worked so effectively to communicate how social distance and spatial difference in Sacramento do not share a proportional correlation. The big blue house was not terribly far away from the McPherson’s, though the difference in wealth was palpable; and yet, although Lady Bird lives “on the other side of the tracks” she shares her whiteness, education, and middle class values with the family of her boyfriend. I could have dispensed with the entire subplot about courting the new boyfriend (though I agree the pseudo-intellectualism was funny) and the new rich friends that come along with him. The big blue house did enough to make Gerwig’s point about class.

So that’s what I liked and felt like Gerwig really got right–and also what I think was weak about the movie. Some women make it through high school without selling out their best friend for a boy. It’s a tired plot line.

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Racks Boutique in Sacramento, the capital city of the U.S. state of California and the county seat of Sacramento County, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

RR: Yeah, it’s not the most original take, though I wonder how much of that is about gender and how much is about the stereotypical structure of a teen coming of age story, even off-the-beaten-path adolescent experiences. The whole “journey” of self discovery often hinges on a protagonist approaching some unrequited love while ignoring the best friend standing next to them (which sometimes turns out to the be the love interest as well, the whole “not knowing what you have in your own backyard” deal). I guess what I’m saying is that dudes sell out best friends in movies for girls all the time–Rushmore and Better Off Dead are two examples that pop into my head. So in a very limited way, it felt like progress that quirky, difficult Lady Bird could be out there getting some without guilt or any terror, besides making a few mistakes in regard to her object of attraction and longstanding friendships. I could go on about heteronormativity, hence the next Rubicon to cross in the infrastructure of the “coming of age” film. I suppose last year’s Call Me By Your Name does this to some extent.

I agree the movie, as a colleague of mine put it, “treats Sacramento like a another character” even down to cliches like being from the “wrong side of the tracks” which both Lady Bird and Danny play for awkward laughs in very different moments. The town really does have a sort of West Coast Midwestern feel–warmer colors and light than you find typically in the Middle West, but with a very matter of fact approach to life. The Joan Didion epigraph that opens the movie is pretty telling in this regard: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento.”

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Rosie the Riveter mural on an abandoned building in Sacramento, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Can I also applaud Gerwig for some pop culture bravery? I mean she rehabilitates Dave Matthews in a serious way in this film. In fact, the Matthew’s song in question, “Crash” (a tune that launched a thousand prom dances and wistful scenes of adolescents staring blankly out into their “future”) plays a critical role in Lady Bird’s maturation. The only thing braver would have been to do the same for Hootie and the Blowfish. Can Sacramento be the Dave Matthews “Crash” of American cities?

AO: I’m not sure Sacramento was ever cool enough to fall as far as the Dave Matthews Band did. I did recently find and listen to my copy of that album and, after years of dismissing and scoffing at DMB, I confess that I fell back in love with quite a few of the songs on it. So anything is possible!

 

Featured image (image at top): The 2012 California State Fair held in Sacramento, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Member of the Week: Rebecca Scofield

faculty picture scofieldRebecca Scofield

Assistant Professor of American History

University of Idaho

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

I am currently completing my book project, tentatively titled Outriders: Rodeo at the Fringe of the American West, which investigates various marginalized rodeo communities over the course of the twentieth century. My project asks how people who have been largely imagined outside the mythological West, including female immigrants, incarcerated men, African Americans, and gay people, have used rodeo to contest their historical erasure. Particularly, I argue that these communities often deploy complex and problematic notions of authenticity, tradition, and heritage as a way to assert national belonging.  For me, rodeo is interesting because it is a space where all our collective ideas about what it means to be masculine, western, or American are performed in violent, painful theater. It also contests simple delineations between the East and the West, the real and the imagined, and the urban and the rural.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

Along with my more general American history courses, next semester I will be teaching a course on Gender and Race in the American West. This course focuses on both the regional West and the mythological West. Through memoirs, diaries, and novels, my students learn not only how diverse peoples shaped the region’s history, but also how that history became re-imagined as a rural, white, masculine space over the twentieth century. By looking at urban history in particular, my students can move beyond a definition of “the West” as having only existed in the nineteenth century or only located on the cattle range. My research on gay rodeo, for instance, contributes to how I teach this course as many of members of the International Gay Rodeo Association live in LA, Houston, or Denver. Teaching students from Idaho about the American West is fantastic. Most have grown up in the rural West and have been immersed in the mythology from childhood, it is wonderful to watch their ideas about their home change.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I will be starting a new project in the coming years on the imagined relationship between women and beasts in American culture. With this new focus, I am excited to read works on bestiality, like Doron Ben-Atar and Richard Brown’s Taming Lust: Crimes Against Nature in the Early Republic, and human/animal folklore like Maria Tartar’s new collection Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World. As a cultural historian, I am particularly interested in the anxieties that accompany women’s too-close relationship with animals. I am eager to read more about characters like King Kong in Leo Braudy’s new Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, and Zombies and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds, as I shift away from our cultural dreams and towards our collective nightmares. After working on various forms of rodeo for so many years, I look forward to reading in new fields.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

Don’t be afraid to pursue what interests you. As an MA student, I studied the racial dynamics of the Tokyo acrylic nail industry. As a PhD student, I completely shifted focus to western wear, rodeo, and the imagined American West. Don’t be afraid to change with your interests.   

What book, movie, tv show, or other media would you recommend as a primer or introduction to rodeo?

Vera McGinnis’s 1974 memoir Rodeo Road is an amazing account of her time on the professional rodeo circuit as a bronc-rider and trick-rider in the 1920s. McGinnis captured the time before rodeo associations had forced women out of rough stock riding, describing the excruciating injuries, the broken marriages, and the grinding financial uncertainty that came with being a rodeo performer. She also illustrates the violence of the lifestyle—from her fear of sexual assault to punching an opponent in the face for implying she slept with the judges. Not only is this book an entertaining read, it demonstrates the expansiveness of women’s lives and the complex racial, sexual, and gendered meanings behind their performances.

Scholar-Activist of the Month: Catherine Fosl

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Cate Fosl at the University of Louisville’s Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research, sorting materials for an exhibit and framed by a photograph of activist namesake Anne Braden.

Catherine Fosl, Ph.D.

Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Director, Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research

College of Arts & Sciences, University of Louisville 

I entered the academy in the early 1990s after spending much of the 1980s working in journalism and community organizing.  About the same time I graduated from college in 1979, I got involved in feminism and in southern peace and justice movements, so that is what inspired me to become a scholar.  Nearly all of the research and writing I have done is related to some aspect of the search for social, racial, and gender justice.

What has animated and sustained me in those passions has way more to do with others’ activism than with my own, and as a young woman I found myself drawn to telling the stories of people and currents that weren’t otherwise getting told. My PhD is in history, which I got interested in through growing up in the South in the turbulent years of school desegregation and seeing the people I loved choosing what looked to me early on like the wrong side of the issue.

Today I write and teach oral history, an interest that originated with my interviewing people as a student reporter for my college newspaper in my original hometown of Atlanta.  In fact I began writing history as a journalist, before I ever even heard of historiography.

For most of us who care deeply about social justice and who work in the academy, especially from the relatively privileged position of a tenured professor, thinking of oneself as an “activist” is complicated and does not feel quite right.  As a scholar of social movements, I have chronicled people who made profound contributions to social change.  I have also participated in some of those movements but only as one of many and in episodic, extremely modest ways.

I rarely call myself a scholar-activist, but I suppose that is mostly how others see me, particularly in the 11 years since I became founding director of a social justice research institute at the university where I teach.  The Anne Braden Institute (ABI) is named after one of Louisville’s most committed anti-racist activists, one of six white southerners Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. praised as a dedicated ally in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  We try to work in her tradition to bridge the gap between scholarship and action for social justice, especially in regards to racial justice and especially at the grassroots level.  I had the good fortune of serving as Anne’s biographer, and that is what brought me to Louisville, Kentucky, and caused me to put down roots here and to begin to think deeply about justice and equity locally.  I moved here in the midst of writing Anne’s biography, and although her activism covered the South and nation, she was an ardent lover of her native Louisville who had her finger on the pulse of virtually every local racial injustice.  It was through her eyes that I began to really know this community.  I also had family roots here, and the stories I had heard from my grandmother in my growing-up years were always set in this river city situated at the border of south and midwest.

Although we are a part of regional and national conversations, our work at the ABI is primarily local.  It often (not always) involves a kind of public history deployed in service of illuminating contemporary inequities. With the help of a small team of student assistants, one phenomenal staffperson, and a handful of faculty pulled into various projects, we  respond to requests from a variety of community partners and advisers drawn to us in part through our namesake.  The result is a little bit of a lot of kinds of research and community engagement.  As an oral history practitioner for more than 30 years now, I have put the method to many unconventional uses in the work of the Braden Institute.  Who would have ever imagined that a fair housing action plan for metro Louisville funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could be oral history-based? Our partnership with the city’s human relations commission and a local affordable housing advocacy organization made that possible.

Another project involved partnering with several museums and the city’s visitors bureau to develop a local civil rights history tour, which now has more than 20,000 copies in circulation, along with a volunteer training guide made available to local educators and community groups. The tour introduces Louisville’s vibrant movement history and makes a start at bridging its tenacious racial divides, which are most savagely visible in its housing patterns.  Right now I am working with colleagues in Public Health and in the mayor’s office on a youth violence prevention research project to develop a citywide social media campaign that challenges negative messaging aimed at African American youth in part by including positive accounts of their own community histories.

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Cate Fosl with two graduate student assistants, Kelly Weaver (L) and Nia Holt, staffing a booth with children’s activities at a Spring 2017 street fair sponsored by the University of Louisville’s Youth Violence Prevention Research Center. Kids were invited to make Nobel peace prize badges explaining what they would do to make the world a better place.

My work has a distinctly urban flavor.  But Louisville is the largest and most diverse city in an overwhelmingly rural, white, and poor state.  So addressing the urban-rural divide is also vital, and organizations we have worked with that enact that mission through activism include, for example, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Appalshop, an eastern Kentucky media collective with whom I served as a humanities adviser for a documentary film about Anne Braden’s life. My most recent project was a collaborative public history project to research LGBTQ historic sites both in Louisville and across the state and then to write a statewide historic context narrative documenting Kentucky’s LGBTQ heritage.  Part of a recent initiative to better preserve our nation’s LGBTQ past, that research was supported by a small grant from the National Parks Service to the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based organization for LGBTQ equality, and to Kentucky’s state historic preservation office.   The project centered in part on Louisville, which was home to the state’s first gay bar, Beaux Arts, established in 1947.  Documenting that site for the National Register of Historic Places was one project outcome. Yet the research was also quite a departure for me because it got me out of Louisville and traveling the state with the Fairness Campaign’s director and a team of students.  To identify sites and collect archival documents and oral histories connected to still relatively hidden histories required unconventional investigative research as well as cultivating new networks of allies, often in small rural communities.

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January 2016, Lexington KY:  one of several “history harvest” sessions in which LGBTQ Kentuckians convened to reflect on community histories and to contribute archival documents. Cate Fosl is speaking at rear of photo, with Fairness Campaign director Chris Hartman at right.

I have written three books of history, and I loved writing them.  I plan to write more!  But I would have to say that over the past decade, the diverse collaborations I’ve discussed here have reshaped my own research agenda substantively.  Historians traditionally have not worked collectively, but nearly all of my recent projects are interdisciplinary and typically unfold as part of teams that are also interprofessional and intergenerational.  I have 2 books-in-progress now.  Yet my individual research pursuits do not overlap much with the local community engagement work that also absorbs me, and I cannot seem to make substantial progress on a new book because of my accountability to the more immediate presses of community-engaged collaborations.  Most recently I am a co-leader in creating a Transdisciplinary Social Justice Research Consortium that crosses 7 colleges and schools at my university to support–with the help of one major internal research grant dispersed to multiple small research teams–a broader spectrum of community-engaged research aimed at addressing structural inequities.

Scholar-activist work is powerfully important. I cannot even imagine an academic career without social justice at its center, especially in the neoliberal, retrenchment climate in public universities today.  But I also think any early-career scholar contemplating doing it must be mindful of the time and energy commitments relative to the rewards structures for earning tenure at their particular home institution.  Anne Braden used to speak of an “other America.”  She referred not to the poverty culture described by political scientist Michael Harrington but to the generations of dissenters throughout U.S. history who have worked for a more just country since the first slave ships landed here. As 2016 demonstrated, we have an awfully long way to go and we need more social justice-minded scholars to be able to stick around.

Catherine Fosl is the author of three books:  Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky (2009,  co-authored with Tracy E. K’Meyer); Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South (2002; republished in paper 2006; winner of Oral History Association’s 2003 book award);  and Women for All Seasons: The Story of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1989). Fosl’s recent community-engaged and collaborative scholarship completed with multiple community partners includes “Kentucky Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer Historic Context Narrative 2016,” a public history project that will become available digitally in 2017; “Black Freedom White Allies, Red Scare: Louisville, 1954,” a  2016 digital history exhibit; and “Making Louisville Home for us All: A 20-Year Action Plan for Fair Housing (2014).

Au revoir New Orleans, Hola Mexico City

On February 3, 2013, New Orleans became the American capitol for the day while the city hosted Super Bowl XLVII. The 2013 Super Bowl is most remembered for two events unrelated to the football game: the blackout and the halftime show. Beyoncé Carter-Knowles headlined, garnering praise for her performance of hits like “Run the World (Girls)” and “Independent Women Part I” with the backing of an all-female band and crew of dancers. It became, at the time, the second most-watched halftime show ever. Beyoncé returned to the Super Bowl in 2016, dominating the show (and eclipsing headliner Coldplay) with an explosive performance of her brand new single, “Formation.” Although the game occurred in the San Francisco Bay area—and the performance alluded to the Black Panthers, which originated in nearby Oakland—“Formation” also represented Beyonce’s return to the Crescent City; the track is laden with lyrical, sampled, and visual references to New Orleans.

beyonce-formation-halftimeLemonade, the subsequently released visual album which includes “Formation”, became the most significant artistic and cultural production of the year (if not the decade). Much of the album was filmed in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana, and the artist and her collaborators use images of black life and black residents of the Crescent City to explore the album’s overarching themes of race, gender, feminism, marriage, southern identity, power, wealth, and status. “Formation,” in particular, resonated with fans for its revolutionary sound and lyrics.

Dr. Zandria Robinson at New South Negress argues that New Orleans is a character in Beyonce’s story, essential to understanding both the historical formation of blackness and black lives, and, more importantly, the potential for black re-formation and revolution. In Robinson’s analysis:

“[T]he visuals for ‘Formation’ offer up New Orleans as convergence place for a blackness that slays through dreams, work, ownership, legacy, and the audacity of bodies that dare move and live in the face of death. As an actual and imagined site of black southern ecstasy, tragedy, remembrance, and revolutionary possibility, NOLA is the pendulum on which Beyoncé rides a southern genealogy that traverses the Deep South from Alabama to Louisiana to Texas, back and through, with stops in between.”

Like a true boss, in “Formation” Beyoncé manages to bridge centuries of history and to offer a compelling and complicated critique of racism and misogyny in under five minutes.

In re-reading the past month’s coverage of New Orleans for The Metropole’s first Metropolis of the Month series, I was struck by the similarities between how urban historians and Beyoncé have examined the city. Indeed, historians are inherently interested in formation, and many of our posts spoke of creation, evolution, and revolution in the city. Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City surveys New Orleans’ development in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to demonstrate how “the city’s collective attitude toward planning, culture, and economics emerged from a combination of human endeavor and environmental reality.” On a smaller scale, Emily Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness examines a single neighborhood in the Big Easy, the red-light district of Storyville, to demonstrate how “both its creation and its closing down were pushed by ‘progressive’ reformers.” In his essay contrasting masks and memorialization in New Orleans, Craig Colten describes how the city’s destruction by three major hurricanes in the twentieth century inspired the construction of the levee system that eventually failed during Hurricane Katrina—further perpetuating the cycle.

Beyonce FormationThe “Formation” video begins with two allusions to Hurricane Katrina—the artist sitting on top of a submerged police car, amidst flooded homes, over which is layered a sample of late comedian Messy Mya asking, “What happened at the New Wil’ins?” “Beyoncé encourages us to hear [it] as a question about the comedian’s unsolved murder,” Robinson argues, “as well as a question about the city and black folks and the South: ‘What happened after New Orleans?’” Beyoncé plays with the ambiguity of Messy Mya’s question, using “What happened” as a way to look back at the city’s history of oppression against its black citizens, and to critique the present perception that black New Orleans has recovered from Katrina.

This longer chronological perspective also characterized our posts on The Metropole. Although references to the hurricane appeared in Colten’s essay and in our roundup of articles on New Orleans published in the Journal of Urban History, it served as an entry point to a broader examination of the city rather than the subject itself. As we wrote in our introduction to the JUH article roundup, “rather than rubbernecking at disaster, [scholars] have tried to use the hurricane to situate the city’s longer history; Katrina as organizing principle rather than a principle unto itself.”

In our discussions of urban histories of New Orleans, just as in Lemonade, the city’s legacy of slavery appeared as a consistent theme. While The Accidental City described how infrastructure built by slaves pulled “New Orleans out of the mud,” in her interview with with The Metropole, Landau explained how Storyville’s red-light district perpetuated the Southern sexual hierarchy whereby white men had ownership over black women’s bodies. And both Colten and Moira Donegan, whose piece on New Orleans in n+1 we featured in the introduction to the JUH article roundup, discussed how a certain form of hurricane tourism has emerged that privileges the desires of white, wealthy visitors over those of the city’s many communities of color.

Finally, if nothing else our coverage on The Metropole encouraged readers to “get information” on the city’s fascinating history. Beginning next week, we head southwest to Mexico City. We have some exciting posts planned, and hope you will enjoy reading essays by several scholars, including one by Professor Pablo Piccato on his new book, a bibliography, and some travelogues about visiting the Distrito Federal.

Thank you to Craig Colten, Emily Landau,  Brenda SantosSteve PerazaStephen K. Prince, and Andy Horowitz for their various efforts in bringing New Orleans to life this month.

Member of the Week: Kenvi Phillips

kenvi RadKenvi Phillips, PhD

Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

Among the topics I am currently interested in is the Colored Y Campaign lead by Rev. Jesse E. Moorland in the early 20th century. The efforts of the national and local YMCA offices, local communities, and the Rosenwald Fund acquired enough money to have more than 20 YMCA buildings built for African American men across the country. The construction of these buildings helped to shape urban space and opportunities for its members. I first became interested in Moorland and the Young Men’s Christian Association a few years ago while I was working at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. There I came across one of Moorland’s scrapbooks from the St. Louis campaign. In the book was a photo of the organizing committee on an urban block with which I was unfamiliar. As a native of St. Louis, I thought that I was aware of all of the city’s neighborhoods, but this photo introduced me to an entire community that I had heard of in passing but had never before seen. These organizations through these buildings transformed both the physical and metaphysical landscape for African American men in urban centers across the country.

Describe what you are currently curating. How does this work relate to your scholarship?

I am the Curator for Race and Ethnicity at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. As a curator I am working to expand one of the nation’s best collections on American women to be more inclusive. This means exploring communities, organizations and individuals that have been traditionally overlooked and underrepresented in archives and subsequently in scholarship. Uncovering the lives and stories of underrepresented women, many of them from or influential in urban communities across the nation, is critical to understanding the development of the American city as well as the suburb. Curators and collections managers are constantly uncovering and sometimes rediscovering past people and events that alter our understanding of American culture. Additionally, through our collecting we get to influence the direction of future research and scholarship. Women that we encounter today whose stories we archive, via oral histories, diaries, correspondence, publications and more will be the subject of current and future research.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

Cheryl Knott’s Not Free, Not For All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow, and Daphne Spain’s Constructive Feminism: Women’s Spaces and Women’s Rights in the American City.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

I would advise young scholars interested in both public and academic tracks not to be dismayed by the broadening of their professional interests because all things are related. A course that you teach on Second Wave feminism or an exhibition that you need to develop on 19th century cooking can and should be influenced by urban history. Making those connections often times will ignite your passion for urban history allowing you to make it more accessible to wider audiences.

What texts or readings would you recommend on the topic of your research?

There are not that many secondary sources that cover the history of the colored YMCA. There are quite a few Progressive era texts and primary source materials that I use. However, Nina Mjagkij has done an awesome job with the following two titles: Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852-1946, and the book she co-authored with Margaret Ann Spratt, Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and YWCA in the City.