Tag Archives: history

America, According to Simone

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SdB + NA FOREVER

I just read Simone de Beauvoir’s travel journals, America Day by Day, a chronicle of her 1947 three-month journey across the US of A. From New York to San Francisco, LA to New Orleans, DC to Boston, de Beauvoir travels solo on a tour of college campuses and along the way occasionally reunites with her lover Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Marcel Duchamp, and other famous and semi-famous writers and artists of the era.

De Beauvoir’s discovery of America is a strange mix of attempted conquest, intellectual competition, and condescending observations on American “simplicity” overlaid with the conflicted envy of an outsider looking in on a party she’s not even sure she wants to attend.

America, according to Simone de Beauvoir:

Here the creams are creamy, the soaps are soapy: this honesty is a forgotten luxury.

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I drink Scotch docilely because scotch is one of the keys to America.
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Men remain bareheaded, but many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sits on their hair like a ribbon–it’s hideous.
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There’s always some holiday going on in America; it’s distracting.
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In America, the individual is nothing. He is made into an abstract object of worship; by persuading him of his individual value, one stifles the awakening of a collective spirit in him.
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America is a box full of surprises.
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Americans are nature lovers, but they accept only a nature inspected and corrected by man.
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But in the end, people are always faced with what they wanted to escape: the arid basis of American life– boredom.
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How I regret being unable to love more unstintingly a country where the reign of man is affirmed with such magnificence, where the love of one’s fellow man seems at first sight so easy to achieve?
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All human problems are posed here on a gigantic scale; and to a greater degree, the solutions they find here will illuminate these problems, retrospectively, in a moving way or swallow them up in the night of indifference.
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America is one of the pivotal points of the world, where the future of man is being playing out. To “like” America, to “dislike” it–these words have no meaning. It is a battlefield, and you can only become passionate about the battle it is waging with itself, in which the stakes are beyond measure.
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And just for kicks, de Beauvoir on Chicago:
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It’s hard to breathe in the lobby [Palmer], which is permeated by a stifling heat and the thick scent of dollars.
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At least I had a glance behind the painted set. I saw a real city, tragic and ordinary, fascinating like all cities where men of flesh and blood live and struggle by the millions.
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And one of my favorite descriptions:
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He also writes about gastronomy and world affairs. The last piece was entitled “Mayonnaise and the Atomic Bomb”
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Related Post: What does one need to watch to have really watched everything? Recommended viewing.
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Filed under Books, Chicago, Really Good Writing by Other People

History Pockets – The House of Dance and Feathers

The first time I was aware of the Mardi Gras Indians was the second episode of Treme when Clarke Peters emerges from a waterlogged bar to petition his neighbor for help. He is dressed like this:

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I honestly thought it was some HBO magical realism shit, a dream sequence, perhaps, because it didn’t seem possible that black men of New Orleans actually don epic suits of beads and feathers and parade and dance through the streets of the Crescent City. Wouldn’t I have heard about it if they did? I’m pretty well-read, I took a bunch of African-American studies classes in college, I know some stuff….

Apparently not. Between the white privilege bubble and the we-only-care-about-what’s-north-of-the-Mason-Dixon bubble, the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians managed to fall through the cracks of my liberal arts education, despite majoring in what my mother semi-jokingly referred to “oppression studies.”

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Beadwork from Mardi Gras Indian suits

The Mardi Gras Indians have been masking in New Orleans for over a century. The origins are rather hazy, but the oral history passed down suggests that the first masking tribes were honoring the Native Americans who resisted the European infiltration of New Orleans and assisted escaping slaves. Every year, hundreds of black New Orleans men and boys spend 11 months sewing by hand phenomenally elaborate beaded and feathered suits. On Mardi Gras, they parade through the city in tribes, battling each other with song and dance and prettiness.

I spent this past weekend in New Orleans and between all the fried things I ate (including a truly outstanding crawfish beignet) we visited the House of Dance and Feathers, a museum created by Ronald Lewis (featured in Dan Baum’s Nine Liveswhich you should read) to preserve the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. 

In the small trailer in the Lower Ninth that Lewis has packed with beadwork, photos, newspaper clippings, and feathered pieces, I was struck by how easy it would have been to go about my entire life and never be aware of the Mardi Gras Indians. What a fascinating and important subculture I would have missed learning about! What beautiful artwork I would have missed seeing! What stories I would have missed hearing!

Holding up a piece of beadwork in the House of Dance and Feathers

Holding up a piece of beadwork in the House of Dance and Feathers

From there, I started wondering about all of the other little hidden pockets of history and culture that I will likely never encounter. It seems safe to assume that New Orleans, though unique in oh-so-many ways is not the only city to house bands or tribes or communities of people doing surprising and surprisingly delightful art and work.

There must be dozens of subcultures and cultural institutions in Chicago that in seven years I’ve never even heard of. There are huge swaths of this city that I’ve never set foot in. I left the House of Dance and Feathers wondering how to go about exploring my own city better. What do you think? How do you find, learn about, and appreciate unique and little-known cultures in your city?

P.S. Want more on Ronald Lewis, Mardi Gras Indians, and The House of Dance and Feathers? Read Kim Green’s post over at The Greenery

Related Post: Many of the untold stories in history of ladies. I know, you’re shocked!

Related Post: How have I never seen Thelma and Louise? 

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S(Monday) Scraps 105

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1. TEXAS: This is a long and beautiful piece by Amy Gentry for The Rumpus about abortion, body politics, and who we’re really protecting.

2. BADASS: Senator Claire McCaskill replies to James Taranto’s horrifying essay about how the fight against sexual assault in the military is actually a “war on men” and male sexuality. Taranto: 0, McCaskill: ALL OF THE POINTS.

3. TRAVEL: Fascinating essay by travel writer Simon Winchester about a tiny island of 300 people, Tristan de Cunha, and how he got banned from visiting for violating local customs.

4. HISTORY: In the wake of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, Slate has an example of the dizzyingly confusing literacy tests that were used in the 50s and 60s to prevent black people from voting.

5. PLANNED PARENTHOOD: In case you ever forget what Planned Parenthood provides, a lovely essay from the blog What Are You Doing Here, Are You Lost?

6. CITIES: Chicago Magazine has an awesome series of panoramic shots of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, pre- and during industrial development.

Related Post: Sunday 104 – Books in pie-chart form, awesome ASL translators, what is a bro?

Related Post: Sunday 103 – Awesome people reading, pin-up presidents, Rich Kids of Instagram

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Filed under Art, Body Image, Chicago, Gender, Politics, Really Good Writing by Other People

Rosie in the News: Swiffer Edition

Uh oh, Swiffer is getting some social media flak for choosing the parody the Rosie the Riveter image for a campaign for their Steam Boost product. Here’s the image:

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Sigh. Look, we’ve been through this before, right? Advertising is the way it is because people respond to it. No company the size of Swiffer launches a new campaign without focus group approval. So the question is not why does Swiffer butcher historical imagery in service of sexist divisions of housework. The answer to that one is easy (because focus groups said it would work…). The more interesting question is, why does it work so well? 

Having not sat on the other side of this particular one-way mirror and not being a homeowning 35-48 year-old mother of 2.3 children myself, I can only guess. To many of us, the Rosie image resonates because it symbolizes a defining moment in women’s history when work outside the home became significantly more accessible. It’s historically significant, and reminds of us of the complicated intersection of propaganda and progress.

But it’s not just that to everyone. It’s meaning has been boiled down (by advertising and pop culture) to a simple message of female strength and capability. It says “I get shit done” and “I don’t need help,” and “I am competent.” In that sense, it’s easy to see why women whose sphere of responsibility is their home would be attracted to an image that projects that confidence. They don’t care that, as one twitter commenter wrote, it “pisses on the legacy” of the original image.

Those were the women in the focus group. Not us. Do you buy things with “steam boost” in the title? Yeah, me neither.

Related Post: Rosie in the News: Alfred Palmer edition

Related Post: Rosie in the News: Rivets and Rosebuds

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Filed under Advertising, Gender, Media

S(M)onday Scraps 103

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1. HISTORY: Imagine you’re 23 and you’re heading off to WWII as a nurse. What do you pack? Slate‘s new history blog has got you covered with a real recommended packing list. Don’t forget your homemade Kotex!

2. ELLEN: Ellen solves all problems. In this clip, she takes on Abercrombie and their whole “only skinny kids are cool” baloney.

3. ART: Like me, you probably assumed pin-up artistry was historically a male artform. Not so! Three of the most respected pin-up artists were women, who knew?

4. SPORTS: Remember Allyson Felix, the Olympic sprinter? What happens after you win gold and you’ve accomplished all your goals at 26? Grantland finds out.

5. EVEREST: Apparently, Mount Everest is overrun by inexperienced, poorly equipped climbers. National Geographic explores what it’s like to wait in line to hike the summit.

6. MAKE-UP: In this short Thought Catalog piece, Chelsea Fagan explains some of the complex rationales that inform female make-up habits. It’s not as simple, “I want to look hot.”

Related Post: Sunday 102 – Depression cartoons, GeoGuessr, war photos, etc.

Related Post: Sunday 101 – Lean In letters, Colbert’s homphobia song, American Girl evolution

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Filed under Art, Gender, Hollywood, Media, Really Good Writing by Other People, Sports

So I´m on vacation…but…

So I´m on vacation. I should not be blogging. I should be out seeing and doing and drinking and eating. Except, I did all of those things for a while today and now I´m pooped. Quizas una siesta pequena y despues mas aventuras.

I love traveling alone for a number of reasons to be explained at some other time, but one of the challenges is that all of my brilliant observations go unnoticed. If a thought is had in the forest but no one is there to hear it, was it really as insightful as I thought it was? Por ejemplo, I just finished Mark Adams´travelogue Turn Right at Machu Picchu about his own trek through Inca country, the history of the empire (which reached 10 million people at its height) and the ´discoverer´ of Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham.

Do you know what I underlined throughout the book? The ladies. Oh my God, the ladies. You are all rolling your eyes right now, like….duh, Emily is all about the womens, but seriously you guys, it was like half a book was missing. It´s not Adams´ fault, history is written by the winners as we all know, and winning, in all of its measurable forms (think elected seats, published articles, coronations, etc) has been traditionally male. But there were at least half a dozen times throughout the book where a woman was mentioned in passing, and I was like, Wait, Mark, don´t stop now, what´s her story?? Por ejemplo,

  • Annie S. Peck – She was a mountaineer in the early 1900s who was ostenisbly racing Hiram Bingham to the top of record breaking South American peaks. This is 1912 we´re talking about here.  She also got a masters from University of Michigan in Greek in 1881. She became known not for scaling Matterhorn, but because she wore pants while doing it. When she got to the top of Mt. Coropuna, she planted a flag that said ¨Women´s Vote.¨ How have I never heard of this chick?

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    Annie Peck

  • Cura Occlo – She was the wife (and sister) of Manco Inca. She was captured by Gonzalo Pizarro (allegedly the nastiest of the conquistadores). When Manco rebelled against the Spanish (he was the puppet kin), he steals Cura back and they escape into the jungle from whence they battled the Spanish for years. All does not end well for Cura, however, she was captured again in 1539, raped and tortured, and finally executed in a public square before her body was sent to Manco via basket down the river (or so says the legend).
  • Dona Angelina Yupanqui - She was the child pride of Atahualpa, the Inca king killed by the Spanish after the most famous failed ransom attempt of all time. She became the mistress of Pizarro (by choice? doubtful, who knows…) and bore him two sons. When he was killed, she married Juan de Batanzos, who wrote the early classic Narrative of the Incas.
  • Alfreda Bingham – Hiram´s wife´s fortune bankrolled most of his adventures. From Hiram´s letters to her, it was clear that he confided in her about his exploratory insecurities. After raising seven sons while he was off adventuring (wonder how she felt about that…), they divorced in 1937. She eventually remarried a composer.

I want a biography apiece on each of these ladies. Pronto! Seriously though, they each get a few footnoted mentions in the biographies of their male contemporaries, but there are clearly volumes that could be written on each of them.

Off to the Inca Trail tomorrow. Stay safe and wish me luck!

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Rosie in the News: Alfred T. Palmer Edition

I can’t figure out why these photographs are suddenly showing up in my internet lap this week, but I’m not mad they’re here. Alfred T. Palmer was a photographer most famous for his WWII portraits, including these fabulous color prints of Rosies riveting:

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Related Post: The whole Rosie in the News archive

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Sunday Scraps 94

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1. DIVA: NYMag counted out the most un-diva moments in Beyonce’s new HBO documentary.

2. GUNS: This sprawling ridiculous, incredible, challenging essay from the Center for Investigative Reporting follows “the shooter” who killed Osama Bin Laden as he reenters civilian life.

3. JOURNALISM: Did you know the Antarctica has a newspaper? With an editor and everything! Read an interview with him, Peter Rejcek, in The Hairpin.

4. CONNIE: My love for Connie Britton will never die. Apparently, I’m not alone in my devotion, at least, according to this NYTimes profile on the former Mrs. Taylor.

5. TECH: Stacey Mulcahy’s excellent letter has made the rounds this week, but if you missed it, read it now. Her 8-year-old niece wants to be a game-designer, so she wrote a letter to “future women in tech.”

6. JANE: This is a fun, short investigation into the life of Jane Austen. It breaks my heart how many of her letters were burned and destroyed. Sometimes I really do feel grateful for the longevity of internet communications.

Related Post: Sunday 93 – Guns, Atwood, visiting Chicago, etc.

Related Post: Sunday 92 – Tina Fey, sleeping portraits, Kenneth Faried, etc.

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Sunday Scraps 93

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1. BOOKS: The always excellent, sharp-as-a-muhfucking-tack Margaret Atwood is interviewed for The Rumpus about Oryx and Crake, the state o’ the ladies, and how to write dystopia.

2. CHICAGO: Because I live in Chicago, when travel blog Go Go Go wrote a “How to Visit Chicago” post 8 MILLION people emailed me. He is mostly right. I try to avoid fights with homeless people, which he seems to think is kind of essential, but to each their differences.

3. NERDERY: Uuunnnnhhhh, this makes me so happy. The folks at the aptly titled Overthinking It have calculated President Bartlet’s West Wing approval ratings.

4. HISTORY: If you dig little-known stories about cool historical people who you’ve never heard of doing neat shit, this BuzzFeed piece about a 13-year-old girl who played pro baseball in the 20s is for you.

5. FOOTBALL: I read somewhere that at one point a third of the NFL coaches were disciples of Bill Walsh. Dude wrote a 500 page manifesto and it happens to be on every football coach’s shelf. Who knew? ESPN has the scoop.

6. GUNS: I missed this post-Newtown, but dang… this XOJane essay by Haley Elkins knocked me over. It’s about growing up with guns and why they (some of them anyway, in the right hands) should still scare the living shit out of you. Read it now, kthxbai.

Related Post: Sunday 92: My new favorite NBA player, 30 Rock goodbyes, pictures of people sleeping

Related Post: Sunday 91: McDonald’s and books? Sci-fi gender swapping, celebrity yearbook photos

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Filed under Books, Chicago, Hollywood, Media, Politics, Really Good Writing by Other People, Sports

Sunday Scraps 86

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1. WRITING: Man, If only our shared first name meant I shared talent with Emily Rapp (Ditto Emily Nussbaum, Emily McCombs). In this essay for The Rumpus, Rapp writes about finding intimacy while her son continues to die. If that sounds sad, it is, but it’s also beautiful.

2. PARENTING: Emily McCombs, editor of XOJane, writes about her creative path towards motherhood and it’s pretty inspiring.

3. INSTAGRAM: Complete with lyrics (for your singalong desires), College Humor nails our obsession with Instagram with this parody of Nickelback’s “Photograph.”

4. SUFFRAGE: Weird and strange and weird again. Here’s a children’s book from 1910 against women’s suffrage.

5. TED: Anita Sarkeesian, from Feminist Frequency, speaks at TEDx Women on online harassment.

6. ROLES: Really interesting video imagining what club life (ha) would be like if the stereotypical roles of men and women were reversed. Who objectifies and gets objectified?

Related Post: Sunday 85: Painless? The path to the NFL, Ann Patchett’s new book store.

Related Post: Sunday 84: Astronaut letters, bedrooms around the world, women who model as men

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Filed under Family, Gender, Really Good Writing by Other People