Podcasts of the Week Ending June 9


RadioLab :: Poison Control

Ever wonder why there’s a number to call with questions about poisoning, who answers those calls, and what the experience is like on their end?  Here’s that story.

99% Invisible :: 77 Steps

99pi breaks down the history and design of the Emeco 10-06 Navy chair and its many impostors.

Decoder Ring :: The Johnlock Conspiracy

Investigating the role of shipping in the consumption of popular culture through the story of the controversy among fans regarding a possible romantic relationship between the lead characters on BBC’s Sherlock.

HUB History :: Wicked Proud

LGBTQ history in Boston and the local origins of pride.

More Or Less: Behind the Stats :: How Many Wizards & Witches are Britain and Ireland?

Statistical analysis determines the number of witches & wizards in Britain & Ireland based on the Harry Potter books.  Spoiler: J.K Rowling greatly lowballs the actual number!

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Amen Break

A history of the most famous drum solo and it’s many sampled appearances across music.

Sound Opinions :: Give the Drummer Some

Speaking of drummers, here’s an entire episode of appreciation of great rock and roll drummers with some great analysis from Joe Wong.

Disney History Institute :: An Unusual History of Disney Audio-animatronics

How a 1934 World’s Fair exhibit inspired Walt Disney and what Gene Kelly thought of seeing his audio-animatronic double.

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Book Review: Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickeyi


Author: Colin Dickey
TitleGhostland: An American History in Haunted Places
Narrator: Jon Lindstrom
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

This book is a travelogue of haunted places in the United States, but it’s not the anthology of creepy stories you may expect.  While the author is skeptical of ghosts and hauntings, this is also not a work of debunking.  Instead it’s a deeper analysis of the stories as folklore that explain the hidden parts of the human psyche as well as how Americans deal with the past (or more commonly, how we hide from it).

Stops on his tour include places known for traumatic events and exploitation, such as brothels, prisons, asylums, ghost towns, sites connected with slavery, and even hotels.  Dickey visits several cities that have made an industry of monetizing their traumatic history as ghost stories for tourists, including Salem, Savannah, and New Orleans.  These stories can sanitize past tragedies while clearing us of wrongdoing. Then there’s the message of the ruin porn of Detroit where the message is that someone’s hubris is definitely to blame, although that may also be a deferral.

In short, one may open a book of ghost stories and find oneself reading a social justice critique of the United States instead.  And a good one at that.

Favorite Passages:

“… all of these stories, in one way or another, respond to history.  Ghost stories like this are a way for us to revel in the open wounds of the past while any question of responsibility for that past blurs, then fades away.” – p. 48

“If the Kirkbride asylums are haunted, they are haunted by the difference between how history is conceived and how it plays out.” – p. 185

“Surely ghosts will follow wherever there is bad record keeping.” – p. 200

“Ghosts stories, for good or ill, are how cities make sense of themselves: how they narrate the tragedies of their past, weave cautionary tales for the future. ” – p. 248

Recommended booksBeloved by Toni Morrison, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand, and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong by James W. Loewen
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson


AuthorIsabel Wilkerson
Title: The Warmth of Other Suns
Publication Info: New York : Random House, c2010.
Summary/Review:

The Great Migration occurred in the 20th century when millions of African Americans left the South seeking better futures for themselves and their children in the cities of the North and the West.  This migration is typically recorded in history as occurring during World War I and into the 1920s, but Wilkerson recognizes that the migration actually continued and increased in numbers into the 1970s.

The reasons for leaving the South are clear. Many Black Americans worked as sharecroppers where their labor was exploited and what little income they took in was taken away again in payments to the landowners leaving them in a state of debt peonage.  The system of segregation, formalized under the Jim Crow laws of the late 1800s, prevented Southern Blacks from seeking to improve their station in life through education, jobs, or political action.  Intimidation and lynching forestalled attempts to challenge segregation. Starting in World War I, recruiters from Northern factories began to travel South to encourage African Americans to come North to work (often risking beatings or death from Southern Whites).

The promise of jobs and an escape from the segregated South encouraged many Blacks to make the journey North.  In addition to facing the challenges of finding the money and resources to leave their homes and families for the unknown, these migrants also risked threats from Southern Whites who, despite their prejudices, did not want their source of cheap labor to leave.  In addition to lynchings and beatings, Southern Whites would prevent Blacks from migrating by exaggerating or making up entirely criminal charges and debts to keep them tied to the South. The railroads were the main route of migration and the cities African American migrants ended up in were often the ones served by railroad routes that connected to their Southern communities.  In many cases, people from the same Southern towns and counties would end up living in the same neighborhoods in their Northern and Western cities.

Moving to the big cities provided African Americans with numerous opportunities – good jobs that paid well, better education, the opportunity to own property, the right to vote, and an escape from the strict caste system.  Nevertheless, these migrants found that the North and the South often had their own systems of segregation, a more genteel, unwritten code they referred to as “James Crow.” Seeking places to live, Black renters found themselves restricted to certain areas of the city and forced to pay higher rents than white people would pay for similar properties.  Immigrants from Europe resented that Black workers would take lower wages.  On the other hand, they showed little solidarity, and restricted Blacks from joining their unions.

African American migrants kept close ties to the South, acting as resources for future migrants, and helping newcomers get settled.  They also kept an eye on the growing Civil Rights Movement, supporting it from afar.  By the mid-1970s, the flow of the Great Migration ceased.  The Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s began taking effect, meaning there were more opportunities for those remaining in the South.  At the same time, the fiscal decline of the big cities meant that good-paying jobs were no longer available and crime was on the rise.

Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three main characters who make their journey in three different decades.  Ida Mae Brandon Gladney and her husband George are sharecroppers in Mississippi who move to Chicago in the 1930s.  There she becomes a pillar of the working class African American community for several decades, yet never loses here Southern accent. George Swanson Starling is forced to leave college early to find work picking fruit in Florida.  During the labor shortages of WWII, George begins organizing the pickers for better pay and conditions, but eventually the threat of lynching forces him to flee to New York.  He spends 35 years working as a porter on the trains connecting Florida to New York.  Robert Joseph Pershing Foster is a highly-skilled physician and veteran who marries into one of the most prosperous and influential African American families of Atlanta.  Nevertheless, he feels that he will never achieve his potential in the segregated South, so in the 1950s he makes the journey to Los Angeles.  There he indeed becomes a wildly successful and prosperous physician (even mentioned in a song by one of his patients, Ray Charles).  But success comes at the cost of strained family relationships, alcoholism, and compulsive gambling.

Wilkerson tells the stories of her three main characters in a novelistic style.  Interweaved with these personal histories are more general demographic trends and anecdotes of other migrants’ experiences.  The style is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – itself a story about migrants – where the narrative of the Joad family alternates with vignettes of other people’s experiences. This is an important book about an under-recognized phenomenon in American history written in an engaging literary style.

Favorite Passages:

The Great Migration would not end until the 1970s, when the South began finally to change—the whites-only signs came down, the all-white schools opened up, and everyone could vote. By then nearly half of all black Americans—some forty-seven percent—would be living outside the South, compared to ten percent when the Migration began. “Oftentimes, just to go away,” wrote John Dollard, a Yale scholar studying the South in the 1930s, “is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do, and if the means of expressing discontent are limited, as in this case, it is one of the few ways in which pressure can be put.”


What few people seemed to realize or perhaps dared admit was that the thick walls of the caste system kept everyone in prison. The rules that defined a group’s supremacy were so tightly wound as to put pressure on everyone trying to stay within the narrow confines of acceptability. It meant being a certain kind of Protestant, holding a particular occupation, having a respectable level of wealth or the appearance of it, and drawing the patronizingly appropriate lines between oneself and those of lower rank of either race in that world.


The arbitrary nature of grown people’s wrath gave colored children practice for life in the caste system, which is why parents, forced to train their children in the ways of subservience, treated their children as the white people running things treated them. It was preparation for the lower-caste role children were expected to have mastered by puberty.


The disparity in pay, reported without apology in the local papers for all to see, would have far-reaching effects. It would mean that even the most promising of colored people, having received next to nothing in material assets from their slave foreparents, had to labor with the knowledge that they were now being underpaid by more than half, that they were so behind it would be all but impossible to accumulate the assets their white counterparts could, and that they would, by definition, have less to leave succeeding generations than similar white families. Multiplied over the generations, it would mean a wealth deficit between the races that would require a miracle windfall or near asceticism on the part of colored families if they were to have any chance of catching up or amassing anything of value. Otherwise, the chasm would continue, as it did for blacks as a group even into the succeeding century. The layers of accumulated assets built up by the better-paid dominant caste, generation after generation, would factor into a wealth disparity of white Americans having an average net worth ten times that of black Americans by the turn of the twenty-first century, dampening the economic prospects of the children and grandchildren of both Jim Crow and the Great Migration before they were even born.


The people who lived in the cabins gave the best hours of their days to cotton, working until the sun went behind the trees and they couldn’t see their hands anymore.


On Wall Street, there were futures and commodities traders wagering on what the cotton she had yet to pick might go for next October. There were businessmen in Chicago needing oxford shirts, socialites in New York and Philadelphia wanting lace curtains and organdy evening gowns. Closer to home, closer than one dared to contemplate, there were Klansmen needing their white cotton robes and hoods.


Many years later, the people would stand up to water hoses and sheriffs’ dogs to be treated as equal. But for now the people resisted in silent, everyday rebellions that would build up to a storm at midcentury. Rocks stuffed into cotton sacks in Mississippi at weighing time. The COLORED ONLY signs pulled from the seat backs of public buses and converted into dartboards in dorm rooms in Georgia. Teenagers sneaking into coffee shops and swiveling on the soda fountain stools forbidden to colored people in Florida and then running out as fast as they’d come in before anybody could catch them. Each one fought in isolation and unbeknownst to the others, long before the marches and boycotts that were decades away.


Until the 1943 uprising in Detroit, most riots in the United States, from the 1863 Draft Riots in New York to the riots in Tulsa in 1921, to Atlanta in 1906 to Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Springfield, and East St. Louis, Illinois, and Wilmington, North Carolina, among others, had been white attacks on colored people, often resulting in the burning of entire colored sections or towns. This was the first major riot in which blacks fought back as earnestly as the whites and in which black residents, having become established in the city but still relegated to run-down ghettos, began attacking and looting perceived symbols of exploitation, the stores and laundries run by whites and other outsiders that blacks felt were cheating them. It was only after Detroit that riots became known as primarily urban phenomena, ultimately centered on inner-city blacks venting their frustrations on the ghettos that confined them.


The pickers had more money in their pockets than they were raised to think they had a right to, and times were the best they had ever been, which said more about how meager the past had been than how great the present was. There was a war going on, after all. They hated that there was a war, but they knew that it made them indispensable for once, and deep inside they wished it would never end.


The Great Migration in particular was not a seasonal, contained, or singular event. It was a statistically measurable demographic phenomenon marked by unabated outflows of black émigrés that lasted roughly from 1915 to 1975. It peaked during the war years, swept a good portion of all the black people alive in the United States at the time into a river that carried them to all points north and west.


Like other mass migrations, it was not a haphazard unfurling of lost souls but a calculable and fairly ordered resettlement of people along the most direct route to what they perceived as freedom, based on railroad and bus lines. The migration streams were so predictable that by the end of the Migration, and, to a lesser degree, even now, one can tell where a black northerner’s family was from just by the city the person grew up in—a good portion of blacks in Detroit, for instance, having roots in Tennessee, Alabama, western Georgia, or the Florida panhandle because the historic rail lines connected those places during the Migration years.


The Great Migration ran along three main tributaries and emptied into reservoirs all over the North and West. One stream, the one George Starling was about to embark upon, carried people from the coastal states of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia up the eastern seaboard to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and their satellites. A second current, Ida Mae’s, traced the central spine of the continent, paralleling the Father of Waters, from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas to the industrial cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh. A third and later stream carried people like Pershing from Louisiana and Texas to the entire West Coast, with some black southerners traveling farther than many modern-day immigrants.


For a time in the 1920s, the ride to Chicago was interrupted after the train crossed the Ohio River into Cairo, as if the train were passing from Poland into the old Soviet Union during the Cold War. Once over the river and officially in the North, the colored cars had to be removed in a noisy and cumbersome uncoupling and the integrated cars attached in their place to adhere to the laws of Illinois. Colored passengers had to move, wait, reshuffle themselves, and haul their bags to the newly attached integrated cars. Going south, the ritual was reversed.


He had learned that fear when he was little and once passed the white people’s church. The kids came out of the church when they saw him. They threw rocks and bricks and called him the vilest names that could spring from a southern tongue. And he asked his grandparents, “What kind of god they got up inside that church?”


Contrary to modern-day assumptions, for much of the history of the United States—from the Draft Riots of the 1860s to the violence over desegregation a century later—riots were often carried out by disaffected whites against groups perceived as threats to their survival. Thus riots would become to the North what lynchings were to the South, each a display of uncontained rage by put-upon people directed toward the scapegoats of their condition. Nearly every big northern city experienced one or more during the twentieth century. Each outbreak pitted two groups that had more in common with each other than either of them realized. Both sides were made up of rural and small-town people who had traveled far in search of the American Dream, both relegated to the worst jobs by industrialists who pitted one group against the other. Each side was struggling to raise its families in a cold, fast, alien place far from their homelands and looked down upon by the earlier, more sophisticated arrivals. They were essentially the same people except for the color of their skin, and many of them arrived into these anonymous receiving stations at around the same time, one set against the other and unable to see the commonality of their mutual plight.


By the time the Migration reached its conclusion, sociologists would have a name for that kind of hard-core racial division. They would call it hypersegregation, a kind of separation of the races that was so total and complete that blacks and whites rarely intersected outside of work. The top ten cities that would earn that designation after the 1980 census (the last census after the close of the Great Migration, which statistically ended in the 1970s) were, in order of severity of racial isolation from most segregated to least: (1) Chicago, (2) Detroit, (3) Cleveland, (4) Milwaukee, (5) Newark, (6) Gary, Indiana, (7) Philadelphia, (8) Los Angeles, (9) Baltimore, and (10) St. Louis—all of them receiving stations of the Great Migration.

Many years later, people would forget about the quiet successes of everyday people like Ida Mae. In the debates to come over welfare and pathology, America would overlook people like her in its fixation with the underclass, just as a teacher can get distracted by the two or three problem children at the expense

of the quiet, obedient ones. Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn’t end up on welfare, stayed married because that’s what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed not to get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men.


The people of the Great Migration had farther to climb because they started off at the lowest rung wherever they went. They incited greater fear and resentment in part because there was no ocean between them and the North as there was with many other immigrant groups. There was no way to stem the flow of blacks from the South, as the

authorities could and did by blocking immigration from China and Japan, for instance. Thus, blacks confronted hostilities more severe than most any other group (except perhaps Mexicans, who could also cross over by land), as it could not be known how many thousands more might come and pose a further threat to the preexisting world of the North.

Recommended books: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, Native Son by Richard Wright, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Rating: *****

Book Review: One Hot Summer by Rosemary Ashton


Author: Rosemary Ashton
TitleOne Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858
Narrator:  Corrie James
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This historical work recounts the summer of 1858 in Great Britain, specifically London, during a time defined by unprecedented hot temperatures that exacerbated the foul stench of the polluted River Thames.  The Great Stink, as it became known, motivated political action in Houses of Parliament and at the municipal level to clean up the river.  Ashton’s work also focuses on the outcomes of other legislation that year such as the legalization of divorce, new regulations for credentialing medical practitioners, and changes in the treatment of the mentally ill.

The core of this book though focuses on the lives of three major figures of the era with alliterative names: Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and Benjamin Disraeli.  In 1858, Darwin became aware that another scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had also devised a theory of natural selection, prompting Darwin to stop dragging his feet and begin to write and publish On the Origin of Species.  Dickens, meanwhile, is in the midst of nasty split with his wife due to an affair, while also falling out with fellow writer Thackery.  Disraeli is in the best position to address the Great Stink and uses his power to push through the Thames Purification Act, as well as working on other legislation such as no longer requiring Jewish MPs to swear by a Christian God.

The book is a snapshot of a single period, but it feels like a jumble that lacks a coherent theme.  And the stories of the three main protagonist by necessity venture far into their lives well before and after 1858.  A lot of the text reads as being gossipy, yet delivered very dryly.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Podcasts of the Week for Two Weeks Ending May 19


I’m not doing well at getting these podcast recommendations up every week, but here’s a good crop of podcast for your listening pleasure.

HUB History :: The Battle of Jamaica Plain

There was a gang shootout right here in my own neighborhood over a 100 years ago that had international implications and ended up involving Winston Churchill, and I’d never heard of it?!?

Hidden Brain :: Baby Talk: Decoding the Secret Language of Babies

It’s been a long while since I’ve had a nice chat with a baby.

Planet Money :: The Land of Duty Free

The mass quantities of liquor, cigarettes, chocolate, and perfume sold in airports has always fascinated/perplexed me.  Here’s the story of how the duty free shop got started at Shannon Airport in Ireland.  It also confirms my suspicions that duty free shop purchases aren’t really bargains.

LeVar Burton Reads :: “As Good as New” by Charlie Jane Anders

A live performance of LeVar Burton reading a hillarious/poignant story about a worldwide apocalypse, a genie in a bottle, theater criticism,  and the nature of wishes, complete with an interview with the author

BackStory :: Shock of the New

The history of World’s Fairs fascinates me and this episode commemorates the 125th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, with special focus on women’s and African American perspectives on the fair.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Cherokee Story Slam

The stories and life of the talented Robert Lewis.

More or Less: Behind the Stats :: Tulipmania mythology

The Dutch tulip bubble always makes a good story about economics and finance, but the truth of the story is not as dramatic as the myths, albeit more interesting in many ways.

 

Book Review: American Amnesia by Jacob S. Hacker


Author: Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
TitleAmerican Amnesia 
Narrator: Holter Graham
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

Two political scientists discuss the history of the “mixed economy” in the United States, how it was dismantled, and why our current political and economic malaise is due to it’s absence.  The mixed economy was ascendant in the United States from roughly the 1910s to the 1970s and at it’s height received wide bipartisan support and was recognized as unchallengable norm by even the most right-wing Republicans.  Mixed economy is defined as one in which corporations have wide ranging freedom to control the means of production and accumulate capital but the government has strong powers of regulation while also providing extensive public services.

During the long progressive period when the US was under a mixed economy, government was generally looked upon in a positive light.  The “American amnesia” is the state we are in today where most Americans are anti-government and have completely forgotten our ancestors’ admiration for government.  This is due to a five decade campaign spearheaded by individuals such as the Koch Brothers and corporate interests like the Business Round Table and the Chamber of Commerce whose Randian ideology of free market libertarianism required debasing and then dismantling the government and the mixed economy.  These views soon were adopted as the Republican Party platform and by the 1990s, even Democrats echoed anti-government sentiments.

This book is important work of political science, economics, and history that shows where Americans once were in a time of more generally widespread prosperity, how we lost that, and what we can do to regain it.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Boston By Foot Tours 2018


If you live in Boston, or are planning to visit, the one thing I recommend you do is take a historical and architectural walking tour through the wonderful organization I’m affiliated with, Boston By Foot.  We have around 200 volunteer guides waiting to introduce you to our city’s famous landmarks and hidden corners. Below are the tours that yours truly plans to lead this season (with more to possibly be added later).

Saturday 5/12/2018, 10am – The North End
Sunday 5/20/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 6/3/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Saturday 6/16/2018, 10am – The North End
Sunday 6/24/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 7/8/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 8/19/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 8/26/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 9/9/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 9/16/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Thursday 9/20/2018, 6pm – The South End
Sunday 9/23/2018, 2pm,  SoWa: South of Washington (members preview)
Sunday 9/30/2018, 2pm,  SoWa: South of Washington
Sunday 10/14/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Thursday 10/18/2018, 6pm – Bostonians Behaving Badly
Sunday 10/21/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston
Sunday 10/28/2018, 6pm – The Dark Side of Boston

Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson


AuthorErik Larson
TitleThe Devil in the White City 
Narrator: Scott Brick
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2003
Also Read By the Same Author: Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, and Isaac’s Storm
Summary/Review:

I revisited one of my favorite books with this re-read of The Devil in the White City. The book tells a lively and engaging history of two concurrent events in late 19th-century Chicago: The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the chillingly efficient murders of numerous people in a purpose built hotel by a man calling himself H.H. Holmes.  It reads as a preview of the 20th Century, a time when visionaries changed the world through new technologies while at the same time unprecedented horrors inflicted bloodshed worldwide.

Having read some of Larson’s other books and not being as impressed, I was wondering if this book would hold up, but it turns out it is still Larson’s masterpiece.  I admit that the part about the fair is my favorite as I’d admire the work of Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted and others who contributed to the fair.  I also enjoy the anecdotes about about various incidents and peoples’ experiences at the fair.  Larson often uses literary license in the Holmes’ parts of the book to make a compelling crime drama.

So this remains among my favorite books of all time.

My review from 2003:

This is a great historical work about America’s dreams and America’s nightmares both of which came to a head during Colombian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Great visionaries like Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted present all that America could be at the fair. Nearby Henry Holmes sets up a gruesome factory of death to murder unknown numbers of young women. I have to say that I was more taken with the history of the fair than the salacious details of a mass murderer, but both stories do tie together well, and the narrative is well-written.

Recommended booksThe Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester,  The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Rating: *****

Movie Review: 13th (2016) #atozchallenge


This is a bonus post for the Blogging A to Z Challenge.  Movies are frequently alphabetized with films titled with numbers separate from the letters A to Z.  So this review represents all the documentaries that have numbers for a title. Technically this movie’s title starts with “T,” but I also really wanted to to watch Tower, so this is a good way to get them both in.

Title: 13th
Release Date: September 13, 2016
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Company: Kandoo Films
Summary/Review:

The 13th of the title refers to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution which freed slaves in the United States and is celebrated as a major act of emancipation.  But it didn’t end slavery because one clause allows slavery of criminals.  This movie explores the many ways in which people, mainly black people, have been denied their freedom by being criminalized over the past 150 years.

After the Civil War, many black people were immediately enslaved again in convict leasing programs.  By the turn of the 20th century, strict systems of segregation were put in place with brutal violence and lynching to keep it enforced, both of which were justified by claims that blacks were dangerous criminals.  Once the Civil Rights Movement seemingly brought a measure of equality to black Americans, politicians used coded phrases like “law and order” to once again criminalize black Americans through things like the “war on drugs.”  The film depicts the procession of US Presidents from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton each upping the ante in the activities criminalized, the severity of punishments, and the resources to enlarge and militarize the police and create a massive system of incarceration.

The film also takes time to focus on the organization ALEC, a conservative coalition of corporations and politicians, that drafts laws that help their members profit from new laws that help them sell firearms, operate private prisons, or profit from lucrative vendor contracts with prisons, among other things.  The film concludes with numerous familiar, but powerful, stories of black people suffering the dehumanizing effects of imprisonment – many of them in prison because of a system that encourages them to take plea deals even if they’re innocent.  And then there are the images of some of the many black men, women, and children killed by police – something clearly not new as this film illustrates, but something easier to document with modern day technology.

DuVernay features a large cast of experts who speak in this film, basically offering the narration over a wealth of archival footage.  Participants include Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker, Jelani Cobb, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Van Jones, and Charles Rangel.  Some participants from the “other side of the aisle” include Newt Gingrich (who surprisingly speaks of how he now realizes what was done in the name of law and order was wrong) and Grover Norquist (whose attempts to frame the understanding of the history of mass incarceration as a liberal conspiracy pale against the evidence presented in this film).

DuVernay also makes some interesting choices stylistically, with the participants filmed casually dressed in relaxed poses in some unusual locations, including what looks like an abandoned railroad station.  I’m not sure if there’s any significance to these choices I’m missing, but does add a layer of beauty and mystery to the film.  Another element frequently used is animated text on screen spelling out words spoken or sung in the film, including the word “CRIMINAL” which appears each and every time someone says “criminal.”

This is a powerful film and really a must-see for all Americans.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

There’s so much in this movie that it’s difficult to take it all in.  I’m fortunate in that I’ve read about most of the issues discussed in this movie, but it’s still something to see all tied together in one dense package.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

If you’ve been reading along my A to Z, you’ve seen my posts about several other films that tie into the themes discussed in 13th, especially The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and I Am Not Your Negro.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander – a prominent person in this movie – is the key text for understanding mass incarceration in the United States. Some other important books on the experience of black Americans denied freedom and criminalized include When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.
Rating: *****

Movie Review: Tower (2016) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “T” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “T” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Trekkies.

TitleTower
Release Date: March 13, 2016
Director: Keith Maitland
Production Company: Go-Valley
Summary/Review:

Tower pushes the limits of documentary film. It recreates the events of the 1966 University of Texas tower shootings using a hyper realistic form of animation with the words of survivors spoken by actors. It’s effective at putting the audience into the chaos of the massacre and showing the youth of most of the people involved. There are some neat effects such as animation of the KTBX radio mobile unit overlaid over archival film of the University of Texas campus. There are also cinematic asides such as depictions of visions a man may have seen as suffered from heat stroke or a women’s Day-Glo daydream about her romance with her now murdered boyfriend.

The woman, Claire Wilson, is one of the key figures in the movie. An 18-year-old student and 8 months pregnant, Wilson was the first person shot from the tower, killing her baby. Her boyfriend Thomas Frederick Eckman was killed instantly by the next shot. Wilson lay on the broiling pavement for nearly 90 minutes wondering if she would live. In one of the many acts of bravery that day, another student Rita Star Pattern ran into the line of fire and lay by Wilson, keeping her conscious and her spirits up. In one of the more stunning moments of the film as Wilson wonders if she would live the animation dissolves to reveal a very much alive Claire Wilson in her 60s.

Another key figure is John “Artly” Fox, a student who heard news of the shooting and not realizing the severity of what was happening, went to campus to check it out. Fox found himself in the midst of the terror, and with a friend would eventually run out to carry Wilson to safety. Other subjects include the police officers and curiously a bookstore employee who reach the tower and kill the shooter.

This was not the first mass shooting in US history, and not even the first school shooting, but in 1966 they was definitely not a public awareness of this kind of random violence in public places. This is evident in the ad hoc approach that first responders made in response to the shooting. The aftermath was also very different from what we’d expect today. There was no candlelight ceremony, no memorial service, no monument on the campus until 2006. In fact, the university was only closed for one day. The survivors did not speak of the event at all. Remarkably, Wilson and Fox did not meet again until the making of this movie, and they discuss how therapeutic it is for them to speak of the shooting.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This documentary vividly recreates the terror of a mass shooting and depicts the long lasting trauma of crimes that have become all too familiar to us in the present day.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Read: Guns by Stephen King is a concise case for the necessary regulation of firearms in the United States, a call that’s fallen on deaf ears since at least 1966.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Oklahoma City (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “O” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “O” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Once in a Lifetime  and The Opposition.

TitleOklahoma City
Release Date: 21 January 2017
Director: Barak Goodman
Production Company:  Ark Media Production for American Experience.
Summary/Review:

In April 1995, I was recovering from shoulder surgery and generally out of the loop of what was going on in the world when I heard murmurs of something terrible happening in Oklahoma City.  This was before the World Wide Web was widespread and we didn’t even have many TVs on my college campus so I always felt that when I finally caught up on the Oklahoma City bombing it was already an historical event, not something I lived through.  Watching this documentary 23 years later filled me in even more things I missed at the time.

The documentary centers the Oklahoma City bombing within the frame of a growing right-wing extremist movement that began in the 1980s – including white supremacists groups, 2nd Amendment absolutists, and Christianist sects.  The first segment of the film focuses on the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge and the second segment on the Branch Davidians at Waco, two incidents that convinced Timothy McVeigh that the government was set on attacking whites, Christians, and gun owners.  The third segment focuses on the planning the bombing and the devastation of the explosion.  McVeigh is the central figure of this part of the movie which follows the story of his disillusionment with the Army in the Gulf War and growing attraction to right-wing extremism through meeting people at gun shows.

I am very uncomfortable with the sympathetic portrayal of McVeigh in this film, particularly the repeated assertion that he opposed bullies, when any reasonable interpretation of McVeigh’s behavior would understand that he himself was a bully of the worst kind.  Fortunately, there are interviews with first responders and survivors of the blast – particularly parents of children in the Murrah Building’s daycare center who were killed and wounded – that relate the true horrors of that day and ongoing trauma.  Still, this is not the type of story where “balance” is appropriate, in my opinion.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This is a well-researched and well-documented history of the Oklahoma City Bombing and the right-wing extremist movement that informed McVeigh’s decision to carry out the bombing.  As we’ve seen movements with similar ideologies form the Tea Party, elect Donald Trump to the Presidency, and march openly in the streets of Charlottesville, it’s a chilling reminder of the hate and violence engendered by these beliefs.

 

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

I have nothing specifically related to Oklahoma City to recommend, but The Bloody Shirt by Stephen Budiansky reveals an earlier era of white supremacist extremism leading to violence and terror after the Civil War.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 7


The Memory Palace :: Junk Room

An examination of the the National Statuary Hall in the US Capitol: who is there and why?

Hub History :: Original Sin: The Roots of Slavery in Boston

The reality of unfree labor in 17th and 18th century Massachusetts.

Code Switch :: The Road to the Promised Land, 50 Years Later

The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. 50 years after his assassination.

Movie Review: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “B” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “B” documentaries I’ve reviewed are BabiesBallerinaBarbosa: The Man Who Made Brazil Cry, and Boredom.

Title: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Release Date:  January 23, 2015
Director: Stanley Nelson, Jr.
Production Company: Firelight Films
Summary/Review:

This straightforward but powerful film tells the story of The Black Panther Party from its establishment in 1966 until it began to disintegrate in the mid-1970s.  The film’s strength lies in the wealth of archival film and photographs, as well as created by the Black Panthers, and interviews with over 30 former Black Panthers and those associated with them (including some still hostile former police offers who fought against the Panthers).  The movie explores the popular image of the Black Panther as a gun-toting, beret-wearing man, but doesn’t neglect that much of the work of the Black Panthers was done by women and involved social programs such as free breakfasts and clinics.  It also examines the ways in which the Black Panther Party helped redefine African American identity in a positive way for many Black Americans who were never directly involved with the Panthers.  Unfortunately, the peak years of the Black Panther Party are all too brief as the FBI and police successfully infiltrate and attack the Panthers, killing or imprisoning some of the Panthers’ most promising leaders, and contributing to in-fighting among the surviving leaders.  There’s a ton more that can be learned about the Black Panther Party, but this is a good introduction.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary: As noted in the summary, this is a good introduction to a larger untold story of the Black Panthers.  Since much of history and media has told the story of the Black Panthers from a privileged white perspective, this documentary does a good job of showing that the Panthers were more than militant black men with guns, but also the hard work that mostly black women did to provide community services, and the general boost to the feeling of black pride engendered by the Black Panthers.
If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:  The film Wattstax depicts a concert in Los Angeles at the same time that the Black Panther movement was at it’s peak, and depicts the expression of black pride in the musical performances and the audience’s participation.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating:  ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending March 17


HUB History ::  The Curious Case of Phineas Gage

The fascinating story of the most famous brain injury.

Planet Money :: Rigging the Economy

Liberal-tarians agree!  The economy is rigged.

Planet Money ::  XXX-XX-XXX

The history of the Social Security number.

Afropop Worldwide :: Roots and Future: A History of UK Dance

Caribbean music traditions and US dance beats come together in the only place they can: the United Kingdom.  A history of jungle, garage, drum & bass, and grime.  This made very nostalgic for the dance tracks of yore.

Have You Heard? :: Strong: Lessons from the West Virginia Teachers Strike

Reporting from the West Virginia teachers strike, featuring interviews with many, many teachers.

Invisibilia :: The Other Real World

Using a reality talent show to counter Islamist extremism in Somalia.

BackStory :: Wherever Green is Worn: The Irish in America

Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes, the Molly Maguires, and other Irish Americans of lore.

Re:sound :: Analog

When I was a kid I recorded myself as the DJ of a “tape radio” station called WLTS, so I feel a kinship with Mark Talbot. Also a repeat of the Ways of Seeing story I highlighted last summer.

 

Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2016)


TitleHidden Figures
Release Date: December 25, 2016
Director: Theodore Melfi
Production Company: Fox 2000 Pictures
Summary/Review:

This historical drama tells the story of 3 of the 20 or so African-American women who worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the 1960s as “computers,” mathematicians who performed vital calculations during the early days of the space race.  Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), considered “the brain” even among her peers, is assigned to the all-white, overwhelmingly male Space Task Group to use her skills in analytical geometry to calculate flight trajectories for the Mercury program.  Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who has the talent to become an engineer, goes to court in order to fight the Jim Crow laws that prevent her from attending a University of Virginia engineering program at a local whites-only high school.  And Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is the de facto manager of the women in the human computers group without the title or the pay.  When she learns that an IBM mainframe will eventually replace her group, she sees it as an opportunity to to teach herself FORTRAN and retrains her colleagues as programmers, eventually being officially promoted to supervisor of the Programming Department.

Like many historical dramas, a number of supporting characters are fictional or composites, but in Hidden Figures that helps keep the focus on our three leads. Similarly, historical facts are fudged with a lot of details compressed or presented out of order, but again for a movie its more dramatic to have John Glenn request that Katherine Johnson verify the IBM’s calculations while he’s heading to the launch pad rather than a few days earlier.  As a humanities person, I’m also grateful that they dumbed down all the mathematics in a way I could understand, while simultaneously realizing that the best minds at NASA would not have been discussing such basic issues at Langley.

All three leads are well-acted and I appreciate that they show three very different ways that these women responded to the hurdles placed before them and achieved their goals.  Kevin Costner puts in a decent performance as the leader of the Space Task Group, who seems motivated to desegregate Langley less out of a sense of justice, and more due to it causing delays.  Kirsten Dunst plays Vaughn’s casually racist supervisor who eventually grows to respect her, kind of a stock character, but keeps it subtle enough.

A fun part of this movie is how much it parallels one of my all-time favorite movies, The Right Stuff, with some scenes and dialogue being exactly the same but from different perspectives. Hidden Figures is also a great historical film that I think I’ll enjoy revisiting, and especially important for making the story of Johnson, Jackson, Vaughn, and others at NASA so well known.

Rating: ****

 

Podcasts of the Week Ending February 24


Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Emergency Alert System

I’ve always had an fascination for those tests of the Emergency Broadcast System. I taped one off the radio as a kid, I actually did them as a college radio DJ, and about 20 years ago I heard one that was NOT a test (warning for intense thunderstorms, which was both a relief and a bit underwhelming).  Here is the story behind how they work.

Planet Money :: The Blue Pallet

Pallets are ubiquitous, overlooked, and seemingly hard to improve.  This is the story of how CHEP pallets revolutionized the industry.  My wife writes about pallets and her enthusiasm is infectious, so I loved this story.

The Nation – Start Making Sense :: It’s Time to Break Up Amazon

Reporting on the dangers of Amazon’s monopoly powers, as well as how mandatory non-compete agreements have helped corporations keep low-wage workers from getting better jobs.

Slate’s Hit Parade :: The Year Rap Music Broke

1986 is a significant year in rap music history, mainly due to RUN-DMC’s crossover hit “Walk this Way” which inadvertently helped revive the fortunes of the rock band Aerosmith (I was one of the kids who knew RUN-DMC well, but never heard of Aerosmith before their collaboration).  Chris Molanphy tells the story of Def Jam Recordings, founded by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, and how in 1986 they unleashed not only RUN-DMC’s hit album Raising Hell, but also Radio by one of rap’s first solo acts with wide appeal, LL Cool J, and Licensed to Ill by the bratty white kids the Beastie Boys.  Molanphy doesn’t end the story in 1986 though, but follows the ongoing careers of all four acts.

 

Book Review: Siege by Roxane Orgill


AuthorRoxane Orgill
TitleSiege: How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution
Publication Info: Candlewick (2018)
Summary/Review:

I received a free advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Siege is a book that tells the story of the Siege of Boston in 1775-1776 from multiple perspectives and entirely in verse.  It’s a spectacular way of presenting how the Continental Army was able to fortify the hills surrounding Boston and force the British Army to evacuate the city. And while there’s poetic license, almost all of this book is based on historical fact.  The characters include familiar names like George and Martha Washington, Colonel Henry Knox, Sir William Howe, and Abigail Adams, but also Washington’s aide-de-camp Joseph Reed, Washington’s enslaved manservant William Lee, and rank-and-file Continental Army privates Caleb Haskell and Samuel Haws.  Orgill also versifies Washington’s daily orders and the news from Boston.  This is a wonderful approach to presenting a moment in history and highly recommend it.

Favorite Passages:

“Funerals – three, four, five a day
General Gage has ceased
The pealing of church bells
They cast too melancholy a mood
They do not bring back the dead” – p. 31

“I believe it
from the jetsam
washed ashore
spindles
headboards
tables without legs
splintered drawers
carved backs of Chippendale chairs

they’re leaving the town intact
but nothing to sit upon.” – p. 171

Recommended books:

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick, A Few Bloody Noses: The Realities and Mythologies of the American Revolution by Robert Harvey, and 1776 by David McCullough

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Secrets of Underground London (2014)


TitleSecrets of Underground London
Release Date: 21 May 2014
Director: Vicky Matthews and Gareth Sacala
Production Company:
Summary/Review:

Not secrets of the London Underground (although there are some) but of 2000+ years of history hidden beneath the surface of England’s capital.  There’s a lot of nifty bits of subterranean trivia in this admittedly corny and sensationalist documentary, including:

  • ruins of the Roman amphitheater
  • Black Death plague pits
  • the labyrinthine Chislehurst Caves where miners extracted chalk for rebuilding London after the Great Fire
  • the innovative Victorian-era engineering of the Thames Tunnel
  • London Underground stations used both as air raid stations and to hide treasures from the British Museum during World War II
  • Churchill’s War Cabinet rooms
  • the lost Fleet River
  • the construction of an expansion of the British Museum into a new space four stories undergroun

Rating: **1/2

TV Review: American Experience: Into the Amazon (2018)


TitleInto the Amazon
Release Date: 9 January 2018
Director: John Maggio
Production Company: An ARK media and John Maggio Productions film for American Experience.
Summary/Review:

The American Experience documentary tells the story of the 1913-14 expedition to explore Brazil’s remote River of Doubt accompanied by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit Roosevelt.  I’m familiar with the story from reading Candace Millard’s River of Doubt, so I was eager to see the documentary;s approach to the history.

It’s a well-produced but unimaginative take on the history documentary format with talking heads, archival photos shown with the “Ken Burns effect” (and curiously also making the figures in the photos appear 3-D against the background), and film of actors recreating the expedition in the Amazon.  Another curious decision is to have the recreations in black & white, matching them with the archival footage, but denying the audience a glimpse of the vibrant colors of the rainforest that the men on the this journey would’ve seen.

I was slightly disappointed, but I expect if you were completely unfamiliar with this historical event that this documentary would be a good introduction.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: A Life in Leadership by John C. Whitehead


Author: John C. Whitehead
Title: A Life in Leadership: From D-Day to Ground Zero
Publication Info: Basic Books (2005)
Summary/Review:

I read this book for research at work.  Whitehead tells his life story which involves commanding landing vehicles on D-Day, rising to Co-Chair of Goldman Sachs, serving as Deputy Secretary of State to George Shultz, leading numerous nonprofit organizations, and guiding the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan after the September 11th attacks.  His style of writing has a bit of a humblebrag to it, but I suppose he’s earned it he spins the yarns of the many significant historical events and trends of the 20th and 21st century he was directly involved in.

Rating: ***