The Best That I Can Do.

bartcrying.jpg I don’t know if you watch The Simpsons, but there’s an episode from either the first or second season where Bart is in danger of failing the 4th grade. He has to pass a history test, or he won’t go on to 5th grade (irony being, of course, that Bart has continued on in the 4th grade for the past 25 years). And for once, he studies as hard as he can—actually falls asleep over his books—but only gets a 59/100. Mrs. Krabappel drops the graded test on his desk, and what is one of the sadder moments in all of Simpsons history, his face crumples, and he puts his head down on his desk and starts to sob.

“But Bart,” says Mrs. Krabappel, “I’d think you would be used to failing by now.”

“You don’t understand,” cries Bart, banging his head on his desk, “I tried this time. I mean, I really tried. This is the best that I can do!” And in that moment, the audience understands. Of course Bart is a troublemaker. Of course he doesn’t try. It’s so much easier to not try—it’s so much easier to handle that kind of failure—than it is to try, and not be able to do it. In the first, you may have suspicions, but you can tell yourself that of course you failed, because you didn’t try. In the second, there’s no way to protect yourself. There’s nothing to say besides this is the best that I can do. And it’s not good enough. And you have to look at your real self, not your potential self, not the self you want to be. You have to look at the self that couldn’t get it done.

I know how Bart feels, though I come at it from the other direction. I don’t remember my parents ever telling me to do well in school. I never got rewards for good grades, or even very effusive praise. It was accepted and expected that I would do well. My parents knew I was smart enough. I knew I was smart enough. So we never discussed whether I would do well. And I never really learned how to handle it when things were academically hard, because it never was (and when it was, even when I was a little kid, I knew the difference between trying and failing and not applying myself).

One of the worst things about failing at Columbia was that my ability to fulfill that expectation completely disintegrated in spite of my intelligence, not my lack of it. I was, and am, smart enough to do the academic work at Columbia. I can do the work. But it all fell to pieces anyway. My ability to think critically collapsed. My ability to read something and then recall what I’d read crumbled. My ability to assimilate information from multiple sources floundered. My ability to remember things—even completely simple things like buying food—deflated.

I choked. That’s all there is to it.

The first and most obvious sign was probably the lens essay assignment. I knew the assignment. I know what my teacher wanted. I knew I had a decent idea, the topics I wanted to address, and where I wanted the essay to end up.

And I could.
Not.
Make.
It.
Happen.

It wasn’t writer’s block. Writer’s block is when you don’t know what to do, don’t know what to write. Writer’s block is when you’re out of ideas.

What do you call it when you’re full of ideas, but all that comes out on the page is a muddle?

Usually I can at least write something, and if it’s crap, I can clean it up later. This time, I could not.

Writing is the one thing I can do. The one thing I can do, the one thing I’ve always been able to do, and do well, and now I couldn’t. I stared at my computer screen. Spread my rough draft out over a table in the library and just stared at it. I muddled with it all night. I couldn’t get it clear in my head and because of that, I could never get it clear on the page. Never before had I really understood what David McCullough had said: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” When your thinking processes break down entirely, of course you can’t write a paper on historical revisionism and photographs of lynchings.

The paper was due in twelve hours. I couldn’t start over. I couldn’t hand in this thing that wasn’t even a rough draft. And so I stared. And I fumbled. And I cried.

I cried more later, talking to my teacher, trying to explain why my essay sucked so much, and tell him that I knew it sucked, and that I was really sorry, that I wasn’t just turning in something sucky just to finish an assignment and get a grade, but that I really, truly did not know what had happened.

It was the best that I could do. And it was nowhere near good enough.

My teacher did an extraordinary and compassionate thing. He gave me an extension—all the way to the end of the semester. He worked with me on that essay. And I finished it, and even I knew it was good. (You can read the whole thing here—trigger warning for graphic images and disturbing content.) Not the best ever, maybe, but I said what I’d set out to say, and figured out some stuff about myself in the process. And by contrast, the second essay I did for that class, in spite of being longer and more complex, came stupidly easy (and it looks like I never posted that here. I should fix that).

That wasn’t the end of me falling to pieces. And while I had this one teacher who was willing to work with me, nobody else was. To be fair, I wasn’t willing to ask. I mean, what do you say? What previous experience could I draw upon that could have taught me what to do? And what professor at an Ivy League university is prepared to hold hands with an undergrad who should be old enough to handle her shit even though she has a sad?

I don’t know what I could have done different. I did my best, and it wasn’t enough. And it wasn’t something I could just push through. I know my dad just wanted me to ride it out and survive it and get it done so it wouldn’t feel like I’d wasted two years, without truly understanding just how bad it had gotten, inside my head.

I don’t really have a conclusion or universal truth to acknowledge. Sometimes you fail, that’s all. Sometimes you fail.

Persons Unknown (originally published June 4, 2011)

The following is an essay I wrote for a writing class this semester.  It’s actually one of the harder essays I’ve ever had to write, though maybe not for the reasons you’d think.  I don’t want it to die with the school year, though, so here it is.

Like one of Billie Holiday’s strange fruits, a lifeless black man dangles from a tree, his hands tied in front of him, his neck canted at an odd angle.  Behind him stands a row of white people, including young girls.  One is looking up at the man, smirking, satisfied.

Layers upon layers of eyes haunt this photograph.  The empty eyes of the black man, whose name is Rubin Stacy; the satisfied, horrified, or blank eyes of the white spectators.  There is the eye of the photographer, setting up the shot, peering through the eye of the camera—the window between then and now.  This particular photograph, taken in 1935 in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, was one of 98 similar images that were gathered in an exhibition called Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America in 2000, as a grim and (it was argued) necessary reminder of the depths of the racism in America’s past.  This leads to our eyes, looking at the photo, whether in a book or on a website or a posh Upper East Side art gallery.  What’s alive in this photograph?  And what has died?  What is the greater story at work, beyond the edges?  Assuming that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the racism underneath it all has blown vapor trails into our present, then—the organizers of the collection believe—it is our duty as Americans to have some conception of the extreme reality under which black Americans lived in the early 20th century, a reality which was masterminded and constructed by white people—who had, in turn, constructed their own extreme reality in which lynchings were necessary to preserve order.

“America’s first disaster movie,” far from being a secret, shameful event, was openly photographed by white spectators or sometimes newspaper photographers as souvenirs and reproduced as postcards (Als 39).  Lynchings were ostensibly a punishment for blacks who committed crimes or stepped out of line, but once a mob got going, it didn’t much care about finding out if the man in question had committed the crime he was accused of, or even taking the time to confirm the man’s name.  In short, lynchings were not a form of justice, they were public events, a means of social, political, and economic oppression, meant “as a warning to all blacks,” particularly those who “dared to challenge white authority,”  (Litwack 16).  Lynchings are symbolic of a time when white supremacy was so endemic and unquestioned that white folks murdered black folks with something beyond even impunity, when—across a large swath of the country—the black community lived with the daily knowledge that their lives could be casually and brutally stolen.  In spite of the public nature of the lynchings, the fact that they were announced in advance, and general knowledge around town of who had participated, juries and medical examiners routinely reached a verdict of death at the hands of “a person or persons unknown,” and hardly any people were ever prosecuted—and even less served jail time (Litwack 16).

It is strange to think of lynchings, the most public of public deaths, as being forgotten by contemporary America, by white America.  Maybe we want to forget, to reduce these public sacrifices to private shame, or at least to cognitively separate ourselves from the perpetrators, to say, “Yes, this happened, and yes it was horrible, but I had nothing to do with it and at least it’s over now.”  We are reluctant to give the historic fact of lynching more space in our inner racial dialogues than we have to.  The organizers of the exhibit argue that, though the time of lynchings is past, the photos are not merely documentation of isolated, abberational events long ago.  These photos “should continue to tax our sense of who we are and who we have been,” because racism and white supremacy continue to inform our collective present (Litwack 34).  Perhaps we have an obligation to view these photos, to remind ourselves of what white supremacy and state-sponsored violence—taken to its logical conclusions—looks like.  But the process by which certain events become—and, more importantly, fail to become—part of our national dialogue is ongoing, and by no means straightforward.

Susan Sontag, in her essay “Regarding the Pain of Others,” agrees that photographs can document events of historical and social importance in a way that no other medium can.  Photographs don’t just tell the story of the moment when they were taken; they find their way into the multi-media narrative of how we document our history, how we document ourselves as humans.  A compelling photograph is capable of documenting so much more than just the event in question.  “Photographs of the suffering and martyrdom of a people are more than reminders of death, of failure, of victimization,” says Sontag.  “They invoke the miracle of survival,” (Sontag 87).  If a photograph is documented and preserved, or if a photograph captures the sentiments and mentality of a society, then it both documents our history and defines our conception of it.  “This is important,” a photograph says, “and this is the story about how it happened,” (Sontag 86).  Photographs uniquely preserve the more viscerally brutal moments in our collective history by keeping them immediate.  But photography also has its own contradictions and weaknesses—are these photographs exhibits of a collective experience, or are they exceptional?

Placing a photo in context—in its multi-media framework—is essential to a photograph’s ability to tell a story.  “Narrative,” argues Sontag, “can make us understand.  Photographs do something else: they haunt us,” (Sontag 89).  They can, perhaps, motivate us to investigate more.  A dead man in a tree is just a dead man in a tree—but a lynching, with all its social and racial implications, is more than man or a woman hung by the neck.  If lynchings are the end point of the depth of racism in the early 20th century, then a critical arc of the spectrum remains to be filled in.  We can all agree that racism is brutal and deadly, but what about the times when it is deceptively banal?  In a documentation of American racism, why photographs of lynchings?  Rubin Stacy can tell us what it was like to die under a racist regime; but what about his hanging body tells us what it was like to live under one?  Is that an important part of the story?

Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4,742 people were lynched—not an insignificant number of people by any means, but still, only a small fraction of the total population of the South during those eighty-six years (Litwack 12).  Basic arithmetic suggests that many, if not most, people of color in the South went their whole lives without ever seeing a lynching.  Lynchings were a threat hanging over the collective head of the black community, a warning of, “You will put up with whatever indignities we subject you to, because if you don’t, you know what will happen.”  The gruesomeness in Without Sanctuary, of threats executed, is exquisite and should, as Sontag argues, “help us understand such atrocities not as the acts of ‘barbarians’ but as the reflection of a belief system, racism, that…legitimates torture and murder,” (Sontag 92).  Without Sanctuary claims to document not just a single event or a single war, but to represent an entire era of bigotry, racism, and social terror; but when you give barbarity one face, then a thousand others are excluded.

Precious little is said about their lives of the victims other than their grisly deaths—their names, maybe, and the circumstances surrounding their lynching—but not much about what’s going on beyond the edges of the picture frame.   Did they have families?  Were they religious?  What sort of lives did they lead?  None of this information is preserved.  But as Sontag points out, “The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs,” (Sontag 89).  Photographs do not merely document events; they have the power to define what it is about events that we remember.

Consider, for example, the most familiar image of Martin Luther King, Jr.—a few possibilities come to mind, but near the top is King speaking to millions on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, triumphant and eloquent, capturing a dream of what America could be.   Nowhere near as familiar is the image of a black father and his young son—niggers in the eyes of so many—examining the remains of a flaming cross planted in their front yard.  It’s one thing to know that King risked his life to do the work that he did, and another to see him and his son confronting that danger on their doorstep.  The photographs of King in triumph hold even more of the weight of courage when juxtaposed next to the photos of King under threat.   Perhaps the horror of the lynchings would be more surprising, more terrifying, if the daily lives of those who were lynched (or those who, because of their skin color, ran the risk of being lynched) were more well known.  Perhaps we would have a better conception of racism today if we could see inside the heads of the white people in these photos, if we could see the ways in which they are not like us—and the ways in which they are.  Perhaps it is what is not in the photographs that holds the link between the act of lynching in 1935 to its legacy in the present day.

For Hilton Als, staff writer and theatre critic for the New Yorker, the legacy of pre-Civil Rights South is not the lynching, but the unphotographed moment before the it happens.  “The experience of being watched, and seeing the harm in people’s eyes—that is the prelude to becoming a dead nigger,” (Als 39).  There is a spiritual lynching that happens before the rope is ever brought out.  We no longer hang men and women from trees, it’s true, but Als can’t help but recognize himself in Rubin Stacy—just like he recognizes the “crazy looking white people” staring out of the photos, who still stare at him today, and see a nigger (Als 40).  To Als, it is not about being hung from a tree, not about losing his life.  It’s about being watched, the attention he attracts because he is one of the “others,” and the other thousands of tiny deaths he experiences every day.

Als admits that, in spite of the personal connection he feels to Rubin Stacy, even he has a hard time looking past the corpse and seeing the life that it had—until just prior to the photo—inhabited.  What can these photographs tell us about the lives of young black men today, in Atlanta, in Bed-Stuy, in New Orleans, in Denver, no longer under the shadow of the rope but still haunted by the eyes following them?  What do 5,000 murdered souls sixty years ago say about 815,000 black men in prison; 25% of black families living below the poverty line; or 9,000 blacks killed by homicide in 2006 alone (Sabol, DeNavas-Walt, US DHHS)?  When we see a sepia-tinted Rubin Stacy in his rural farm clothes, do we also see 16-year-old Derrion Albert, beaten to death on the south side of Chicago in 2009 in an after school meleé?  And what of the young white girls, in their Sunday best?  Do they look like me?  If Hilton Als can relate to the experience of Rubin Stacy, then who is it making him feel that way, and how do we make sure they they (we) don’t escape accountability, as their (our) progenitors did?  What does lynching look like, today, in 2011, when most black people are not murdered by mobs of whites, but by other black people?  If we’re going to fight racism in the 21st century, at some point we must address the ways in which racism today does and does not look like racism did in 1935—about the reasons why whites no longer have to murder black people, because we seem to have successfully engineered a society in which they will murder each other, and be forgotten in prisons.  And if we’re going to move beyond racism, we need (amongst many other things) to widen the collective representation of Afro-America to include more than just victimization, more than just crime.

Of course, exhibits like Without Sanctuary are far from the only representations of African-Americans available.  In fact, the fact that lynching photos are not part of the mainstream racial dialogue in this country is one of the reasons why Without Sanctuary was organized in the first place.  The organizers don’t advocate for its dominance in the landscape, merely that it deserves a place in our collective memory.  Photographs of lynchings serve as a benchmarks for all that the black community has overcome in the past fifty years, and are only one part of a much larger picture.  The dominant narrative (that lynching no longer exists) is subtly but obstinately entrenched.  Without Sanctuary is part of the rebuttal to that narrative, part of argument that contrary to what we have been told, “War has been the norm and peace the exception,” when it comes to race relations in these United States (Sontag 74).  But if eyes are going to continue to follow Rubin Stacy, Hilton Als, Derrion Albert, and generations of young black men not yet seen by anyone, then how that picture is defined and constructed, when it’s judged to be complete, and whose stories are part of that picture is of critical importance.

Works Cited

Als, Hilton.  “GWTW.”  Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Ed. James Allen.  Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000.  38-44.  Print.

DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Cheryl Hill Lee.  “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2004.”  US Census Bureau/US Department of Commerce, August 2005.  Web.  1 May 2011.  http://www.census.gov/prod/2005pubs/p60-229.pdf

Litwack, Leon F.  “Hellhounds.”  Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Ed. James Allen.  Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000.  8-37.  Print.

Sabol, William J. and Heather Couture.  “Prison Inmates at Mid Year 2007.”  Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin.  June 2008: n. pag.  Web.  1 May 2011.  http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/pim07.pdf

Sontag, Susan.  Regarding the Pain of Others.  New York: Picador, 2003.  Print.

United States.  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  “Health, United States, 2009: With Special Feature on Medical Technology.”  CDC/National Center for Health Statistics.  Web.  1 May 2011.  http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus09.pdf#028

Graphing a Music Scene (Boston & Surrounding Areas) (orig. published Nov. 7, 2010)

This is a paper I wrote for my Intro to Sociology class.  We were told to identify a network of nodes and flows and analyze it.  I analyzed the Boston punk music scene.

And yeah, I realize that the Dropkicks’ original drummer is Jeff Erna, not Joe.  It was 3:00am and there were quite a lot of Joes to graph.

 

In the past decade or so, Boston has been a training ground for many mid-sized punk rock bands gaining national prominence.  Long known primarily as the hometown of Aerosmith and keeping the rest of their music scene a well-kept secret, since 1997, bands from Boston .  The Mighty Mighty Bosstones broke out first with their hit “The Impression That I Get” which reached #1 on the Billboard Alternative charts.(1)  Since then, Boston local boys the Dropkick Murphys, a large Irish-punk band, routinely sell out venues with a capacity of 4,000+, played at Fenway Park, and had a single featured in the Martin Scorsese film The Departed which subsequently went platinum.(2)  Other bands to emerge from the area who have gained national popularity include the Amazing Crowns, Four Year Strong, the Street Dogs, Far From Finished, DYS, Slapshot, and Blood for Blood, among others. (3)

The Boston music scene has long been characterized by cooperation and mutual support amongst its many bands.  The Bosstones have cited Boston’s supportive music scene as a reason for their national success, and paid it forward by bringing Boston bands on tour with them whenever they could.(4)  Other bands—including the Dropkick Murphys, whose first national tour was opening for the Bosstones—have continued this trend.

In a closely knit music scene, the various bands can be thought of as nodes, and the flows are characterized by several events: when one band member leaves one band and joins another, for example (as when Al Barr left the Bruisers in 1998 and joined the Dropkick Murphys); when a band opens for another or when they tour together; or when bands share producers or songwriting credits.  According to Scott Richter, host of the “Give ‘Em the Boot” radio show on WWPV 88.7 in Burlington, VT, and amateur New England punk rock historian, “the Boston punk scene has been a very tight knit group of people (with the exception of the emergence of FSU within the hardcore scene and boneheads running the scene for a bit in the mid 90’s).  Musicians often form multiple bands; they tend to have one band that will regionally or nationally tour, but will sometimes have two or three bands that rarely, if ever, leave the Boston area.”

I selected this population partly because it is a scene I’m already familiar with, but also because Boston’s music scene, being based on cooperation rather than competition, is rare to behold, and not just in the music scene.  An interesting side note is that the Boston punk community manages to maintain social cohesion while also maintaining stylistic uniqueness, with no band sounding quite like any other.  The bands also have, in the vast majority, maintained their independence and DIY (Do It Yourself) work ethic.  The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are the only band who spent a significant amount of time on a major label.  I believe that the bands’ social cohesion and commitment to each other is a major reason why they are able to do business this way, and why the Boston scene has been relatively insulated from some of the more exploitative aspects of the music industry.  Because they can all support each other, nobody is tempted to go outside the group for support (like to a major label).  (5, 6)

The Boston scene is ever-evolving, and only time will tell if the Boston scene maintains the unity that is currently evident.  New bands may carry on the trend of helping each other out in a close community, but the community could just as easily close itself off and become a clique, with band members only helping those they already know, and not nurturing new talent, and new bands may have a hard time finding a relatively solid “lily pad” to jump off from when they’re trying to make the leap from local act to nationally touring one.  For a band trying to make this transition, landing an opening spot on a tour with a well-known headliner can be a godsend; but if the tightly knit bands only ever tour with each other, it gives new bands no chance to join “the club.”  In addition, the effects of the digital revolution on this community, though agreed to be a watershed moment in the music industry, still remain to be seen.

Most of the information for this diagram came from my own music collection, combined with informally surveying people I know who are well informed about the Boston punk scene, confirmed with checks in discographys and production notes.  Any errors are of omission, rather than commission.

The graph is coded as follows: nodes (that is, bands) are in red, with individual band members in black.  The various arrows are flows.  It’s worth noting that not every person in every band is on the diagram (for example, the Bosstones have eight members, and the Dropkick Murphys have seven).  I limited inclusion to individuals who were involved in two or more projects, and even then was forced to limit the data (Matt Kelly, the drummer for the Dropkick Murphys, has two other bands).

The purple lines indicate a permanent migration of an individual from one band to another.  The directionality of the arrow indicates the final destination of the person.  Johnny Rioux’s roadie duties are included in the “band member” category because he was the bass tech for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones for more than ten years, and this connection allowed him to network with many other bands, including the Dropkick Murphys, which would lead to him joining the band the Street Dogs (also, it was Johnny’s connection to the Bosstones through other, earlier, Boston bands that got him the gig as roadie in the first place).

Guest appearances on albums, or temporary loaning of band members, are noted in light blue.  Touring together is noted in green.  Though this appears to be the least common flow, it is more common than I was able to depict on the graph—the Bosstones and the Dropkick Murphys have toured together at least twice; the Bosstones have taken several other bands not on the map (because I could not graph their members’ movements) on tour.  In addition, tour information is the hardest to document because it is the most likely to be either inaccurate or lost.  But playing a show together is probably the most common and most effective way for bands to get to know each other, network, set up future shows, talk about upcoming albums, trade information, and so on.

The quality of my data is, I believe, sound, though woefully incomplete.  In talking with people familiar with the scene and reading music industry articles, I realized that even a relatively small scene like Boston’s quickly becomes overwhelming to quantify.  And I learned that, as much as I know about the Boston scene, there is enough material just on the musicians of the past fifteen years to fill a book.  I restricted my analysis to half a dozen bands and their members (and did not have the space to even list every single member in every band), and still could not include relevant bands and individuals (and local Boston favorites) like Sinners & Saints, the Lost City Angels, or the Kings of Nuthin.  Just mapping out the flows between the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the Dropkick Murphys and the Street Dogs can be daunting, and raises the question of when, precisely, weak ties become strong ones.

I think the Boston scene will remain an interesting one to remain aware of, not only to listen to the new bands that come out of the scene, but also to see how the dynamics in the scene change.

 

Compact Discs Cited

 

Big D & the Kids Table.  Fluent in Stroll.  SideOneDummy, 2009.  CD

Big D & the Kids Table.  Strictly Rude.  SideOneDummy, 2007.  CD

Dropkick Murphys.  The Gang’s All Here.  Hellcat Records, 1999.  CD.

The Kickovers.  Osaka.  Fenway Recordings, 2002.  CD

Street Dogs.  Savin Hill.  Crosscheck Records, 2003.  CD.

 

(1) http://www.billboard.com/artist/the-mighty-mighty-bosstones/chart-history/11295#/song/the-mighty-mighty-bosstones/the-impression-that-i-get/655130

(2) http://www.dropkickmurphys.com/about

(3) It should be noted here that “national prominence” is defined, loosely, as a band that can tour the continental United States and draw an audience large enough to allow them to play in a venue with a capacity of 800+.  Another way of looking at it would be a band whose members do not need day jobs and can spend a large amount of the year on tour.  Because of the way the punk scene is structured, bands can be nationally known in that scene and yet not break out into a wider (non-punk) audience, or attract the attention of Billboard’s sales charts.  Most punk bands tend to make their money from playing shows, not selling albums.  The digital revolution is changing this trend, but for the purposes of gauging a “popular” punk band, it is still a workable indicator.

(4) Burton, Tim.  Interview with Patricia Ricci.  Marbles E-zine, 1997.  Online.  http://web.archive.org/web/20010903171021/www.comcat.com/~beaudk/bosstones/articles/inter20.html

(5) Richter, Scott.  Personal interview.  12 October 2010.

(6) The FSU he speaks of is Friends Stand United (originally “Fuck Shit Up”) a racist hardcore street gang with chapters all over the Northeast that ran amok in the early 1990s.  They caused so much havoc and violence that many scenes disintegrated completely, including Boston’s.  Says Richter, “[The scene] fucking died, there was no one but Slapshot, from 1985-1995.  They [new Boston bands] built it from the ground up, they started from nothing and built it to where it is today.”