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Dangerous and the Revolution of Michael Jackson’s Panther Dance

I’m loving one of the recent 33 1/3 books (the 100th volume?!) focusing on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. I distinctly remember buying the album just as I began flirting with my own sense of musical interest. My friend down the street would regularly play the record when we were hanging out, while a separate group would shortly engender me in the cult of grunge that was quickly snapping up the interests of many of us (the author, Susan Fast, points out, early on, that Nirvana’s Nevermind would eventually best Dangerous on the charts – probably a key moment in Western musical history). Because of the album’s centricity in my formative years in elementary and middle school, it is probably the Jackson album I’m most familiar with (despite the fact that most of Jackson’s biggest hits were years past in his repertoire by this point).

With 20 years of distance, I appreciate Fast’s emphasis on the album’s two biggest hits as transgressive moments in Jackson’s oeuvre. The saccharine “Heal the World,” being so much more than a feel-good yawn-fest and “Black or White” being a confrontational moment of racial politics.

 [Note: even this version of the video is edited; racist symbols/phrases were added to the windows as if they were what Jackson was smashing.]

Quoting from a couple of pages centered on the notorious (and later re-cut) video for “Black or White” including the famous “panther dance,” I appreciate Fast’s weaving of critical theory and cultural context here:

“But in the original version, of course, [the famous face-morphing scene] was followed by Jackson’s ‘panther dance’ and it was this that made all hell break loose for him and which also allowed us to see what he was really up to in the first part of the short film.

As Eric Lott has written, ‘something so extraordinary happened at this moment that the video’s initial audiences couldn’t take it in.’ The camera pulls back from the morphing scene to expose a film set an crew, the last (black) actress to appear in the morphing scene and the film’s director, John Landis, yelling ‘cut’ and saying to the actress ‘that was perfect; how do you do that?’ There’s no answer to this question: how could there be? For the question is only superficially about a feat of modern technology; a white man has just asked a black woman how she manages to adapt as a minority, in which she must move both as part of her own world and that of the dominant culture and be cheerful in the process (‘that was perfect [behavior]’, a world of double-consciousness.”

And later:

“Jackson begins his dance trepidatiously. After he emerges from the form of the panther he stands still for a moment, settling into his new skin, unsure how to move forward. He dons his fedora and is caught in a spotlight, invoking the idea of the panopticon, which Michel Foucault used as a metaphor for the pervasive surveillance and disciplining (normalizing) of bodies in contemporary society.

Some context regarding “violence” and Illegal Pete’s

On Wednesday, a group of us were able to meet with Peter Turner, the owner of Illegal Pete’s. The event was level headed and filled with rational discourse about concerns around the name of the restaurant. It was covered, later that day by the Coloradoan. And while I appreciate the media coverage, the article does not portray the even keeled nature of the meeting and quoted me without a lot of context to clarify my meaning. The article has since gotten radio coverage, additional news articles here, here, here, and here, an editorial response here, Reddit discussion here, was on the Drudge Report, etc. (I am probably missing additional media coverage.)

To be clear, I stand behind sentence I am quoted as saying in the meeting: “This is a place that’s going to instill violence in our community.” In the meeting I discussed that there are forms of symbolic violence and physical violence; I believe Illegal Pete’s will foster both (based on the violent rhetoric in the comments supporting the company, I frankly see this violence already at work.) What’s missing however is the explanation of how the word “Illegal” is not simply a word about the immigration status of an individual. In many contexts today, it is a label that we place on Latinos wholesale. Many people in the meeting voiced the fact that they were born and raised in Colorado or other parts of the U.S. and have been verbally attacked and berated–violent language–telling them to ‘go back where they came from,’ that they are illegal, that they are different from other citizens in the country. Based on skin tone or language practices, Latinos are perpetually treated differently. To be clear (this is something that is not understood by many of the negative commenters I’ve heard from), this does not have anything to do with one’s legal status in the United States; Latinos are regularly labeled as illegal.

In this context, I shared with Pete at the meeting that his restaurant’s name continues a legacy of hate speech and violence that is worsening in the current sociopolitical climate. We need to reconsider the “I-word” in general. A colleague shared this video in my Facebook feed, which I find illustrative:

Considering the ways hateful speech is statistically tied to violence, I would label Illegal Pete’s as a place that perpetuates a culture of white supremacy and, as a result, “instill[s] violence” in my community.

People have argued that I am unable to interpret that the word “illegal” is being used in a different way – that it is from a book, is about counter culture, etc. Again, it doesn’t matter how Pete Turner intended the name to be understood. It does not matter that some people see the name as harmless. The legacy of racism means it is an injurious name for an entire (and growing) sector of Americans.

This is not about whining or complaining. It is about refusing to accept hurtful, violent language in the context of society in 2014. In regards to this, there is a concern that Fort Collins residents are simply unable to decipher the difference between how Pete uses the word “Illegal” and how it is interpreted with regards to immigration. It is my belief that a Mexican-influenced restaurant with a person’s name and the adjective “Illegal” can convey little else but the current issue at hand As such, I continue advocating for the business to change its name.

An Open Letter to the Owner of Illegal Pete’s

Hi Pete,

I know several people have contacted you recently with concern about the name of your restaurant and its soon-to-be-open Fort Collins location. I too am concerned.

I should add that I really appreciate the work of your company from what I’ve been able to gather on your website. Your company clearly seems committed to some aspects of justice and bettering the world around you.

That being said, I cannot, in good conscience, be a patron of a Mexican restaurant that is called “Illegal Pete’s.” I understand, from a friend, that the name comes from a book and that it is also in tribute of your father. I admire both of these aspects. However, whether or not your intention, it is a denigrating and derogatory name. The restaurant will be located in the same area that current Fort Collins residents remember often seeing signs saying “No dogs or Mexicans.” It is under this legacy of American racist practices that the name Illegal Pete’s becomes unacceptable. I understand that this may not seem fair to you – as it may not be the origin of the name. However, the slippery nature of sociocultural context in the U.S. is something that cannot be dictated by us as individuals–they are a part of a culture of white supremacy that we remain entrenched within and which your restaurant’s name furthers.

I should also add that, in looking at your site to author this letter, the photograph on your history page (found here: http://illegalpetes.com/about/history) plays into the longstanding history of undocumented (“illegal”) cooking and cleaning staff that work as much of the lifeblood of the service sector in the U.S. The covering up of the subject’s eyes in the photo makes him appear anonymous as if he is in fact the Illegal Pete of the namesake. Again, regardless of your intention, the name, the composition of the photograph, and the cultural context (including the hand that could be seen as a wave or as a ‘no photos please’ gesture) are read in a problematic and offensive way. I believe you were an English graduate and I would hope your multimodal analytical acumen would allow you to see how I am seeing what I am seeing.

Did you know that this month, throughout Northern Colorado there has been a play called “Do You Know Who I Am?” that has been performed in various locations (https://www.facebook.com/doyouknowwhoiammotuslyfe)? Written and performed by undocumented Latino youth, the play is a powerful reminder that there is a large “illegal” Latino population in our community. As patrons in Fort Collins, how will Latinos (regardless of legal status) feel about a legacy of identity and citizenship with regard to the name? Or what about everyone (regardless of ethnicity) that sees the name and implicitly, unconsciously reinforce the concept that legal identity for Latinos is somehow tied to cultural conceptions of heritage? In this sense, the name functions as a continual micro-aggression.

I want to support your business when it opens in Fort Collins. I want to encourage my friends, family, and students to do the same. However, this name is simply not something that I can accept and I have no choice but to actively discourage my network to patronize your restaurant.

I know you have extended an invitation to meet with a CSU graduate student and, travel-schedule permitting, I hope to discuss these issues with you in person. In full disclosure, I intend to post the contents of this letter on my public blog: theamericancrawl.com to invite dialogue (there have been numerous Facebook discussions of this topic and I would hope to broaden the discourse beyond a layer of private nay-saying).

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Antero Garcia

Thinking about Race, Civic Agency, YA Lit, & #ComicEd

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First off, Marcelle Haddix and I have a book chapter in the newly published collection The Politics of Panem edited by Sean P. Connors. Our chapter is called “The Revolution Starts with Rue: Online Fandom and the Racial Politics of the Hunger Games.” In it, we contrast the dialogue found within this meme with the racist response to the casting of the Hunger Games several years ago. Marcelle and I expand our thinking with regard to this topic in an upcoming ALAN article (I’ll share this, too, when it is released).

More broadly, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about civic identity in popular media for youth. Recently reading the first 10 issues of Zero by Ales Kot, I am reminded of the civic lessons from his earlier work, Wild Children (take a look at our conversation from a while back).

Similarly, the new(ish) comic series Storm focuses on the so-named mutant who is able to control weather. With a woman of color as a mainstream comic book protragonist, it’s been striking to see how this series has largely been episodic understanding of civic identity and discussions of collective responsibility. This panel from the first issue, for instance, has had me thinking about how this medium can more deliberately instill concepts of civic action amongst readers.

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Particularly in light of following #FergusonSyllabus, I am reminded of the powerful lessons I can glean daily from social networks. (My friend Peter and I have been discussing and thinking about critical applications of comic books in classrooms on Twitter using the hashtag #ComicEd. Join us!)

As I think about the white-washing of history taking place in my home state and of the organizing in Ferguson (not to mention the three other young black men that have been shot in the St. Louis area in the two months since Michael Brown’s death), I reflect on the potential voices of activism and dissent in popular media: Rue as a revolutionary, Storm as a conflicted ideologist, Officer Gordon on the TV show Gotham (to name a few).

As educators, how do we challenge youth to think civically in a time when their rights are being actively restricted?

Some Upcoming Presentations

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Next Saturday, I will be delivering a keynote presentation at the 2014 Teachers of Color and Allies Summit (TOCA) here in Colorado. If you’ve been following the news, this is a particularly interesting time for critical educators in Colorado. I’m looking forward to learning with my colleagues at the summit next week.

The following week, I will be in England as one of the floor wranglers for the Build and Teach the Web track at the Mozilla Mozfest. In addition to helping design the spatial design and narrative experience of our floor, I’ll be mainly found running a gaming corner for attendees. We’ll be hacking, playing, designing, and sharing games throughout the weekend. If you’re attending Mozfest, please say hello. (We’re at the Hogwartsianly awesomely named campus, Ravensbourne.)

Finally, in mid-November, I’ll be giving a keynote at the New York City School Librarian System conference. If you’re a librarian and you’re in New York City, I look forward to saying hello!

Teacher Solidarity article in Race Ethnicity and Education

I have a new co-authored article in the (comma bereft) journal Race Ethnicity and Education. Titled, “Toward a teacher solidarity lens: former teachers of color (re)envisioning educational research,”this article is an expansion of dialogue conducted as part of a working group of former teachers of color at UCLA organized by Thomas Philip. I am grateful to Thomas, Eduardo Lopez, and Danny Martinez for working this paper. Also acknowledged at the end of the document, friends Ursula Aldana, Elexia Reyes McGovern, and Oscar Navarro also greatly contributed to the dialogue as former teachers of color.

The abstract follows (the article is behind a subscription wall, so please get in touch if you are unable to access it and I will share my author eprint copy):

Based on a two-year self-study by a group of early-career scholars of color, we explore and purposefully name our role, within the contemporary context of neoliberal reform, as educational researchers of color who are former K-12 teachers. We capture the insights that emerged from our self-study through a close reading of dominant neoliberal educational reform discourses, particularly through an examination of the writings of Michelle Rhee and Wendy Kopp. Along three dimensions of: (1) experience as teachers; (2) solidarity with teachers; and (3) analyses of racism in schooling, we characterize prominent discourses through which educators, researchers, and the public describe teachers and teaching. We name these discursive frames to make explicit the assumptions that are embedded in each and the intentional or inadvertent consequences of each. Finally, we propose a teacher solidarity lens through which we strive to approach our research and work with teachers.

#ComicEd Resources

Last month, Peter Carlson and I presented our work on critical use of comics in K-12 learning contexts at the San Diego Comic-Con. Cribbing from an email Peter sent out to teachers after our presentation, this post has a bunch of links to materials we shared at our session.

  • First, if you’re interested in listening to the entire presentation you can do so by downloading the mp3 here. (Apologies that Peter and I present in active-teacher-mode, which means we tend to wander and are never really close to the microphone).
  • Similarly, the slides for the presentation can be viewed here. (This file is a big one – mainly pictures that lack the context without listening to the audio. You may be better suited sticking with the handouts below).
  • Here’s the handout we distributed to teachers at the panel.
  • And here’s a list of graphic novel and resources created by Jennifer Freeman, an educator we met at the Denver Comic-Con. Jenn’s doing awesome work in Denver and we hope to work with her again in the future.

As we mentioned in San Diego, we hope to push the dialogue regarding comics in the classroom beyond the simple question of whether or not comics should be allowed. These resources should help push past that argument into more critical planning and implementation of comics in the classrooms.

We’re going to continue the dialogue around comics in classrooms throughout the year. Updates will be posted here and Peter and I have been using the twitter hashtag #ComicEd to discuss comic books as well; join us!

Finally, we are in the process of building a Teacher’s Workshop for next year’s Comic Con International.  This would be place to discuss and then build units and lesson plans involving comics and graphic novels.  We’re aiming for the Wednesday before preview night at CCI.  If you are interested in attending such a workshop and the possibility of corresponding course credits, let me know.  This feedback will aid our proposal for the required time and space.

Full recording of StoryCorp Interview

Recently, NPR re-ran the StoryCorp conversation Roger and I had several years ago.

I continue to think about and reflect on how Roger, like many of my students, transformed both my professional and personal life. Though it is raw and sometimes meandering, I wanted to offer curious readers access to the full recording of Roger and I. That’s a somewhat large MP3 file. If you find the conversation at all useful, please let me know.

Another Book Excerpt: Who Gets to Be Gay in YA?

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As instructors are pulling together syllabi for the upcoming school year, I wanted to share another excerpt from my recent book Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature: Challenging Genres. Like the excerpt shared earlier looking at depictions of female sexuality in Divergent and the Daughter of Smoke and Bone, this excerpt challenges assumptions developed over time in YA literature. I hope to post a few more excerpts in the coming months.

Who Gets to Be Gay in YA?

As the slow trickle of LGBTQI* books continues today, the titles most widely available help categorize what YA queer fiction looks like. That is, with so few books available, the ones that do get published create a patchwork picture of who is privileged as represented in queer YA fiction. With several significant exceptions (Alex Sanchez’s [2003] Rainbow Boys comes to mind), LGBTQI characters are often white and socioeconomically privileged. They may not be wealthy but Tiny in Will Grayson, Will Grayson or Holland Jaeger in Keeping You a Secret are anything but financially burdened in their stories.

And so, while I applaud the slowly diversifying representations of sexuality emerging in YA, I would argue that these books also identify who gets to be gay in YA. Likely based on increasing a wide readership, these books are about white and middle or upper-class individuals (reflecting the book buying audience).

In looking at the problematic representation of LGBTQI characters, I am intrigued by the trajectory of David Levithan’s novels. Over the many books that Levithan has authored through 2013, every single text includes LGBTQI characters, often they are at the center of the stories. For instance, Levithan’s (2003) first book, Boy Meets Boy is a warming love story about Paul, an openly gay 11th grader. Boy Meets Boy details Paul’s adventures as he falls in love and reconciles past relationships and friendships in a welcoming high school. It is playful, silly, touching, and campy. More than any other aspect of the book, the biggest pushback my college students that read this book in an adolescents’ literature class have is that the book is too unrealistic in its positive depictions of acceptance. The book plays with expectations of what takes place in high schools (the star quarterback at the school is also a popular cross-dressing homecoming queen named Infinite Darlene). The book plays out as fantasy or idealized and over-the-top visions of inclusion in school spaces.

In the decade that he has been publishing books, Levithan’s stories have become more fluid in their depictions of gender and identity. At the same time, the books’ forms tend to challenge how we read and understand novels. Though these can be seen as two separate stylistic decisions on Levithan’s part, I believe the uprooting of gender and sexuality can be tied to an uprooting of YA book structures as well. In the ten years since Boy Meets Boy was first published, a striking shift in Levithan’s novels becomes apparent. One of his next books, The Realm of Possibility (2006), also focused on gay characters. However, the form was strikingly abstract: a series of poems constructs a collage of narratives of love and growth. The book reads like a chorus of echoing voices speaking across and at each other.

In 2011, Levithan published The Lover’s Dictionary. As its name implies, the book’s short entries are organized alphabetically. They detail a cycle of a relationship: from attraction to love to dispute to separation. The narrative is one that the reader must cobble together. When did certain actions happen? Is this relationship concluded? Flourishing? Stewing in some sort of stasis? Arguments could be made in any direction. For some, this may make this an unfulfilling narrative. There lacks the kind of definitive plot and resolution that readers expect. However, on the other hand, this is also a book that offers powerful, liberating possibilities for readers. There is no set way to read the book. Want to read an entry from the letter R first? Go for it. The story is fluid in ways that makes relationships seem like extendedpossibilities and hiccups. There’s also something else significantly apparent the longer you spend time with The Lover’s Dictionary: there is no set gender in the book’s descriptions and entries.

A heteronormative view of the book could easily assume this is a detailed account of a romance between a male and a female. Readers more familiar with Levithan’s repertoire could likely infer that this is a book detailing a homosexual relationship. However, I do not see the structure of the book as one that was developed in an effort to please various readers. Instead, the book looks like an effort to blur our understanding of gender. The way conceptions of being male and female are created and defined by contemporary society can feel out of step for questioning young and not-so-young people alike. If the ways I enact my gender as a thirty-something male do not fall in-line with how society casts male gender and masculinity, my behaviors and actions are in discord with general social rules. The Lover’s Dictionary, then, is a challenge to these expectations. The universality of the feelings, experiences and emotions within the book establish that it doesn’t matter if a protagonist is male or female. Levithan’s book succeeds because of the structural conceit of veiling the text in a swath of second person pronouns: “you” and “your” replace the gendered labels “he” or “she” and “his” or “hers.” Levithan is able to create an engaging and critically lauded novel with few clues about gender.

The conceit of writing a book where gender is largely absent would seem like a singular experiment. However, Levithan followed up The Lovers Dictionary with a similar attempt: Every Day (2012). The fantastical premise of this novel is something like this: each morning the protagonist of the novel wakes up as someone new. This isn’t just anyone; the age of the person is consistent with the age of the protagonist. However, name, location, gender, and sense of identity are all that of a new person. In essence everyday the main character becomes someone new (while still preserving past memories). The protagonist refers to itself as “A.” Throughout the book, A embodies men, women, straight and queer identities. However, after a central turning point the protagonist finds an innate connection with a female character. And so begins a central question that is at work across Levithan’s books: how do we communicate and fall in love with those around us, regardless of gender and sexuality? These are not simply defining categories in which we are placed in Levithan’s texts, but fluid states we move between. Every Day follows A’s elusive search for this female character. Is this a romantic relationship? A spiritual one? As a female being sought, does this implicate that A’s true nature is a heterosexual one? That is, deep down inside, is A gendered as male? Conversely, is this an LGBTQI text that engenders A with female qualities? Levithan reaches beyond traditional expectations of gender and looks for human-to-human, individual connections.

With the above excerpt following a more sweeping account of LGBTQI representation in YA lit, the emphasis on Levithan looks at the stylistic moves and trajectory of one of the sub-genres most visible authors. Thanks for taking a look. Again, if you’re interested in class visits, guest lectures, or only-somewhat-rambling conversation (digitally or otherwise), please get in touch!

 

* I note and critique earlier in the chapter that I use the label of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Intersex, as this was the same terminology I would use in my high school classroom.

Critical Comics Presentation at San Diego Comic Con

Like last year, Peter Carlson and I will be presenting at this year’s San Diego Comic Con. If you’re going to San Diego next week, come join us on Thursday in room 26AB at 2:30 for our presentation, “Teaching Critical Comics in an Era of Standardization and the Common Core: The Pragmatics of a Transformative Pedagogy.”

This presentation expands on the introductory work we shared last year to focus on the pragmatics of critical pedagogy and comic books in classrooms today. This will be a 50-minute hands-on presentation, so we encourage teachers to bring and share ideas throughout.

 

(And yes, our presentation mashes up Shakespeare quotes and Extreme. It’s that awesome.)