Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Climate Change is Personal

I am spending this week in Porto Velho, the capital of the Brazilian state of Rondônia, where I did research for my dissertation in 1996. At that time, and during subsequent research visits in 2000 and 2003, the problem of deforestation was framed primarily in terms of land-use change. As I return, the same problem is -- rightly -- viewed through the lens of climate change.

Even when traveling, I often listen to WBUR in Boston, and this afternoon it brought me this excellent reporting on a story I have been following very closely since the summer of 2016. Journalist Rebecca Hersher examines the costs of two catastrophic floods in Ellicott City -- July 30, 2016 and May 27, 2018 -- in terms of personal relationships within a close-knit community that has great personal significance for me.

As the reporting indicates, even though they may disagree on the most appropriate ways to respond to the flooding, town residents acknowledge that climate change makes further severe flooding inevitable. The story briefly and obliquely alludes to land-use change as an additional factor; I discussed this in some detail in some of my previous posts about these floods.

Flood Flash -- July 31, 2016 -- my initial post about the first of the two floods mentioned in today's reporting. We had enjoyed a visit to Ellicott City just a week before this flood. This post explains why it was unprecedented, even for a town with a history of memorable floods.

Flood Peak -- August 5, 2016 -- following up a week after the first of the severe floods. Of course, at that time we thought of it as the only one.
Flooding: It's Not in the Cards -- June 4, 2018 -- a detailed explanation of the multiple reasons that expressions like "100-year flood" are no longer useful, if ever they were.

Houston, Too Close to New Orleans -- August 7, 2018 -- compares flood disasters in three great American cities, two big and one small.

Burying the Survivors -- September 1, 2018 -- in which I indicate which remedy I oppose.


Two posts from well before these floods, merely reveling in the charm that is Ellicott City:

Haunting My Old Haunts -- July 12, 2012 -- is just what it sounds like. This is a great place for ghost stories.

Great Divide Beer -- June 11, 2009 -- a geographic tidbit at one of our favorite E.C. boates.

Photo by Geoffrey Scott Baker conveys the hold this town has on people.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019


I grew up outside a small town in northern Virginia in the first decade after the what is commonly called the Civil Rights Era. My early lessons in U.S. history were through a very particular set of lenses that foregrounded Virginia's place in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars; we learned both names for all the battles in the latter war, and spent a full day exploring the nearby fields of Manassas / Bull Run after extensive study of its details. We knew that slavery was at the center of the war and that it was a terrible thing, though we also learned that many heroic figures of the revolutionary period had held slaves.

A few years later, we learned about Jim Crow, Kansas versus Board of Education, and Martin Luther King -- all of which seemed to belong to a much earlier period. I was an adult before I realized how close in time those events had been, and middle-aged before I realized that some victories had come very late to our particular part of Virgina.

I was reminded of all of this today by the way one of my favorite journalists opened a program devoted to the 400th anniversary of a particular part of Virginia history I do not recall learning. It was 400 years ago this month -- in August 1619 -- that people were first brought as slaves to what would become the United States. This grim anniversary is being recognized by the New York Times in a project known simply as the 1619 Project. (I had seen some links to this project, but had not yet clicked through -- living in Massachusetts, I was curious but for the wrong reasons: I thought it was a project about pre-Plymouth communities surrounding my current home.)

Tanzina Vega explored the topic in three brief but powerful conversations on her radio program The Takeaway. The first segment is a discussion with Dr. Ibram X Kendi and Professor Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers of the importance of slavery as a foundational aspect of the United States, and the tendency to underplay its importance.

To open the discussion, Vega asked her listeners to describe what they learned about slavery in school. This turned out to be a great way to enter the discussion, because the approaches varied so much. Americans have a lot of opinions about slavery, but little common understanding of it, and a general tendency to underestimate its importance.

In the second segment,  Vega and William "Sandy" Darity examine the important wealth gap that persists a century and a half as a result of slavery, a century and a half after its formal end.

In the third segment, Vega discusses asks scholar and poet Clint Smith how the 1619 project can inform responses to the notion that slavery in the United States took place so long ago that it is now time to "get over it." They wrestle with whether such a sentiment is even worthy of a response, concluding that although some remain impervious to history's lessons, education remains a worthwhile undertaking. Listen through the final minute, when Smith reads powerful poetry he contributed to the NY Times project.

The Middle Passage, Mapped

An example of the gaps in my own education about slavery is that I did not know the term "middle passage" until I visited a museum in Regla, Cuba in 2003. I was aware of the phenomenon signified by the name, though I did not comprehend the scale of the transAtlantic trade in humans.  Several visualizations now help to convey the enormity, but I think even these resources simply show how incomprensible it is.

I highly recommend the conversation WAMU journalist Joshua Johnson had with Nikole Hannah-Jones, who launched the 1619 Project for the New York Times Magazine. From this conversation between them and with listeners and other key contributors, we learn the reasons for the project, the profound impact it has already had on many readers, and the predictable backlash from people whose worldview has been challenged, perhaps for the first time.

I had gradually become aware, for example, that the project avoided the conventional use of the word "slave" as a noun. This conversation explains why this was a conscious -- and important -- choice. I am reminded of some of my own, much more modest writing about immigration policies that function as human sieves. In other words, the institutions of slavery, immigration policy, and gerrymandering contrive to extract the wealth of human labor without recognizing the full personhood of the associated humans.

Backlash: The Vague and the Furious

In Who Got the Maddest About the New York Times’ Slavery Coverage?, Slate journalist Ashley Feinberg describes the response of various pundits -- including at least one with actual history credentials -- who could have used a trigger warning; without one, they lashed out at the messengers of uncomfortable truths about the central role of slavery in the history of the republic. Their sputtering ire is testament to the importance and veracity of the 1619 project.

That historian, of course, is the inevitable Newt Gingrich, a fellow member of the professoriate described by Feinberg as "a former speaker of the House and noted wife enthusiast."

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Run, Nina

From the today's episode of BBC Witness History, I learned that Nina Simone had lived in Monrovia, Liberia for a three-year period when she was quite a prominent performer in the soul genre.

BBC reporter Lucy Burns combines her interview of Simone's friend James Dennis with archival interviews of Simone herself to tell the story of how personal and political motivations came together to lead the singer to a country that was at the time attractive to many African Americans. The discussion moves on to changes both in the singer's personal circumstances and in the country itself, which has fallen into very difficult times since its cultural heyday in the 1970s.

Liberian Calypso was written by Simone, but draws heavily on Maya Angelou's marvelous 1957 calypso tune Run Joe.


When I am rowing in New Bedford harbor, we often see the word Monrovia on the stern of ships at anchor, and fellow rowers will ask about the name, or about the Liberian flag, which looks vaguely like the U.S. flag. Although it is a small country with a proportionally even smaller economy, Liberia is the registry of record for many ships; it is one of the world's most important flags of convenience.
This ship is not registered in Brazil.
Photo: Maritime Studies

Thursday, August 15, 2019

¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Nacho!

Today's Google Doodle honors culinary hero Ignacio Anaya García on what would be his 124th birthday. I did not know his name, but we all know his nickname: Nacho. And yes, he invented nachos. As a quick-thinking maitre d' in Piedras Negras, he did exactly what is shown in the gif above, for the wives of U.S. soldiers who had wandered across the border looking for a snack.

Bonus: he used Wisconsin cheddar!

The origin story of nachos is yet another reminder of the interdependence of borderlands communities along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Without both the creative Señor García and the peckish visitors from across the river, nachos themselves would be impossible!

Lagniappe: A Literary Coincidence

If Nacho is short for Ignacio, then it follows that Nacha is the nickname for Ignacia. In Laura Esquivel's smoldering Like Water for Chocolate (film, book, and food) she is the household cook who "who presides over the story before and after her death as spiritual adviser," according to reviewer Janet Maslin. Coincidentally, Esquivel's story takes place in Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass, when Nacho was a young man.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Baby on the Shelf

Writing for NPR's Planet Money, journalist Greg Rosalsky brings to mind -- perhaps inadvertently -- the annoying Elf on the Shelf craze in his discussion of recent research in demographic economics. He begins his explanation of the current Baby-Less Recovery in the United States, by citing the tendency of some economists to put babies in the "durable goods" category, alongside cars and refrigerators.
This reporting draws on research that shows significant correlations between declines in birth rates and subsequent economic recessions. In other words, people anticipating economic put off baby-making early in economic slowdowns. They put, as it were, the baby on the shelf.

The research further finds that the sensitivity of potential parents to economic stress is far from uniform across demographic groups. For the first time, in fact, married women aged 30-34 are now the most likely to have children because they are less susceptible to economic woes than their younger sisters. For the first time, student loans are cited as a significant demographic factor. The pernicious ramifications of Grover Norquist's politics of austerity, in other words, are showing up in population figures.

The article is a good illustration of details that sometimes arise in discussions of the later phases of the demographic transition model. Broad patterns in population change result from fundamental shifts in the economy, from rural to urban, agricultural to manufacturing. Smaller but still significant shifts then occur as a result of important but less profound economic cycles or social changes.

I found this article via another story I had heard on air -- Less Sex, Fewer Babies: Blame The Internet And Career Priorities. In this lighthearted but very important segment, journalist Sam Sanders explores several reasons that the United States -- along with other economically prosperous countries -- faces a growing need for immigration. That's right: while politicians exploit xenophobic fears of migration in the short run, our current reliance on millions of immigrant workers (regardless of legal status) will only increase in coming decades.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The World Between Two Covers

I will be assigning this very geographic book in my spring 2020 class, Advanced Global Thinking.

The World Between Two Covers: Reading the GlobeThe World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe by Ann Morgan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As my favorite librarian Pamela says in her review (, this is "not a beginner's 'year of' book." It is the first of the genre we've read that does not follow a calendar, for example, and some chapters will be a bit obscure for those with limited exposure to postmodern lit-crit.

But the work is full of wisdom about the value of reading in general and the importance of reading beyond one's usual bounds in particular. Her insights into the highly uneven geographies of publishing and translation are particularly valuable.

Her insights into the origins and current status of globalization are so keen -- and clearly articulated -- that I will be assigning an early chapter or two in my new Advanced Global Thinking class in 2020.

For another discussion of Morgan's project, read Winnie Khaw's review.

To see what Morgan chose to read, view the list on her blog.

View all my Goodreads reviews

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Why Walk

Amidst some errands Tuesday morning, I enjoyed hearing most of a conversation between WBUR journalist Meghna Chakrabarti and Norwegian author Erling Kagge, whose most recent book is Walking: One Step at a Time. Just as I was contemplating the pathetic irony of listening to their conversation -- Why We Walk -- in my car, I heard a caller describe her neuroscience research (yes, call-in shows in the Boston area are not like those in other places) about a place where I had a walk planned the very next day!
In the fall semester of alternate years, I teach a course called Land Protection (GEOG 332). It is the epitome of environmental geography class in that it examines the interface between physical and human geographies. In this case, we study forest ecology and landscape change as it relates to conservation policy and related elements of the tax code. It's a fun course, really, and many who take it go on to work as volunteers or professionals in conservation.

One of the texts in that course is Thoreau's Country, in which author David Foster compares observations from Henry David Thoreau's daily journal with his own observations of New England forests, especially those he has made as the long-time director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham. I take my students to that forest -- almost all of which would have been agricultural land in Thoreau's day -- for some close-up examination of landscape change. Over the years I've been aware of various kinds of research going on in the forest, including snow studies by a friend of mine and long-term climate studies under the auspices of the United Nations.

It is at about 22m45s into the On Point installment that the caller Susan discusses her research into the mental-health benefits of walking, particularly in the woods, and by extension a key benefit of maintaining public open space. She has been learning more about these benefits through research in the very same woods that I was visiting in order to fine-tune the forest-ecology exploration I will be repeating in the autumn.


Humorist Bill Bryson has written a very different book with a similar title, which I have read with students in another context and that I highly recommend -- A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Squaring History

Amidst the jumble of place names strewn across this scene from a busy part of the Belgian capital is symbolic but hard-won effort to right -- albeit in a very small way -- an historic wrong of European colonialism in Africa.

The square recognizes the 1960 independence of the Belgian Congo -- now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- by honoring Patrice Lumumba, its first prime minister. In 2018, officials in Brussels renamed Bastion Square in his honor; as of this writing, Google Earth continues to use both names.

As reported by Times journalist Milan Schreuer, the honor is in stark contrast to the brutality of Belgium in the Congo in general and of its treatment of Lumumba in particular. That he would be honored in a neighborhood that is both in the metropol and populated by many of his compatriots gives the irony of the honor a spatial manifestation.
Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of Congo in New York in 1960.
Allyn Baum/The New York Times

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Coffee Prices Under Water

I welcome this story from NPR's Planet Money journalists Sally Herships and Stacey Vanek Smith, in which they draw attention to the perilously low prices of coffee.

Image (as seen in my family's dining room)
By Oliver Ray
They rightly ask why prices paid to farmers can be so low when retail prices for coffee drinks is increasing. The answers they provide are correct, as far as they go, and include one that I had not thought of: coffee itself constitutes a shrinking proportion of what is in a typical retail cup of coffee, as concoctions involving milks, creams, sugars and syrups become more popular.

Regular readers of this space will not be surprised that as a Coffee Maven, I have several caveats:
  • The story focuses on Colombia, which is an important producer, and Brazil, which is the biggest. Production trends in these countries certainly are important. They neglect to mention Vietnam, where the World Bank has promoted high-volume, low-quality production. Its rapid move to second place about two decades ago continues to disrupt the market, while causing environmental problems and not providing much benefit to farmers in Vietnam itself.
  • At $1.08/pound, the current price in Colombia, though low, is a bit higher than the most commonly used benchmark price, which is $0.94. Readers of this blog can always find the benchmark price at the top-left of this page, courtesy of a widget from
  • These prices refer to the export price -- coffee as it gets placed on a ship in Colombia, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, or any producing country. Most farmers are several steps removed from this, and must work through a series of middlemen (they are always men), including unscrupulous ones known as coyotes. Unless they are involved in a fair-trade or direct-trade contract, farmers will see only a fraction of the export price.
  • Farm workers will earn even less if they do not own the farm. Harvesting coffee pays the equivalent of a nickel or so per pound.
  • Just as the piece focuses on Colombia as a producer, it also focuses on a single retailer: Starbucks. It is indeed important, but in many ways not representative of the retail side of the industry.
  • And finally, a small mistake that is often made. The story references the New York Stock Exchange, which facilitates public trade in equities (stocks) that constitute corporations. Coffee is traded on the New York Coffee Exchange, also known as the C Market. The operation of this market is explained in the very important film Black Gold, which I mention in various contexts throughout many posts on this blog.
Still, this story is an important one, and I am very glad to hear it told to an audience beyond my small orbit. Please scroll up and give a listen!

And always remember: #thankthefarmers

Dam Problems

Journalism, it is said, is the first draft of history. Journalism can also serve as a window on geography. That is often the case with the work of journalist (and fellow employee of Massachusetts public higher education) Steve Curwood. The view is amplified by the journalists and scholars he brings onto his show, Living on Earth.
I recently found his January 2018 conversation with environmental journalist Fred Pearce is an excellent example. Wetlands are seasonally inundated areas that play a vital role in ecosystems throughout the world.

In the segment (13 minutes) entitled African Dams Dry Up Wetlands & Local Jobs, Pearce explains the causes and consequences of wetland losses in several parts of Africa. His emphasis is on the lost of riparian wetlands lost as annual floods are eliminated by the construction of dams. The conversation illustrates how environmental problems interact with economic security, migration, and even national security. He links the loss of wetlands to decisions about migration on the part of people who would have much preferred to stay home.
Manantali Dam, Senegal River Basin
The conversation also reminds us that although climate change has wide-reaching consequences, it is not always the primary driver of environmental problems. Sadly, humans have no shortage of ways to disrupt the natural systems upon which we depend.


The very first project initiated by the World Bank was the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which created electricity and extended growing seasons, but disrupted the floods that had supported Egyptian civilizations for thousands of years and made farmers there dependent on chemical fertilizers. It would be the first of many dams that came to symbolize the arrogance of Rostovian  development theory (simply build infrastructure and everything will improve).

Dams featured prominently in the very first book I read as a geography student, and small dams were essential parts of my master's thesis, Source-area erosion rates in areas tributary to Miami Whitewater Lake (Ohio). Finally, this blog includes the story of the Rio Doce, a dam failure in Brazil that did incalculable damage.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Mexican Countries

By now, this screenshot will be familiar to many:

FOX NEWS screenshot with title: "Trump Cuts U.S. Aid to 3 Mexican Countries"
Fox News screenshot, as reported by Newsweek
and everybody else.
This filled my weekend newsfeed, an some have asked for my thoughts on it. Here is what I posted in response to a query from a BSU alumnus:

I have a few thoughts, in no particular order, other than the first:
  • I am glad so many of my friends thought of my efforts in geographic education when they saw this.
  • I am also reminded that our most prolific geographer -- the late, great Dr. Harm de Blij -- told us that he wrote 1,000 letters a year to public officials and the editors of various programs and publications about errors of this kind or erroneous maps. Some stand out more than others, but many are made. Dr. de Blij, incidentally, was the first person to put a map of Kuwait on television when Iraq invaded it; he knew instantly that it would be an example of Americans learning geography through war.

And some more thoughts:

  • We wonder why Americans are so bad at geography, but we don't actually teach it much. The world is big and complicated; it needs more than a quick class in middle school. Massachusetts is about to increase it from a miniscule part of the curriculum to a tiny part. We need more, but someone in state government is working very hard against us.
  • It remains illegal to become a certified high-school geography teacher in Massachusetts.
  • Seeing this post did motivate me to get the publicity together for our next advocacy day (April 17, 2019) at the State House.

Photo by BSU Alumna Ashley (Costa) Harris
Massachusetts State House 2012
As published in National Geographic's
Geography for Life
And two more thoughts about the story:
  • The xenophobia of the people involved is giving the quote more attention.
  • The attention is a distraction from the important part of the story, which is the application of hamfisted negotiation tactics to a matter of extreme complexity in the international sphere.

My doctoral minor in Latin American Area Studies can now be called Mexico & Stuff.


The essential site Latino Rebels provides an antidote to the ignorance, in the form of a map (hurrah!) and a poem that is as instructive as it is tragic: Central American (In)Visibility.

Map: Latino Rebels

Saturday, March 16, 2019


OrangesOranges by John McPhee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always tell my students -- and anyone else who might listen -- that reading is the key to good writing. As I read Oranges, I realized that reading the work of John McPhee is an especially good way to improve one's writing. He is often credited as the forebear of the entire genre of creative nonfiction, and this early work (his third book, published in 1967) puts his gift for clarity on display.

Another of his books (Encounters with the Archdruid) was assigned in the first geography course I ever took, and another (Rising from the Plains) was the first book given to me as a gift by a professor. I thoroughly enjoyed those and a half-dozen more, but I always felt I was missing something important when I would see him described as the author of just one book: Oranges.

During a sabbatical that is ostensibly about a lot of other things, I decided that I should give myself the gift of taking the time to read this book that has been lurking at the edges of my attention for three decades. In 150 short pages, McPhee shows that behind the seemingly ordinary -- a piece of fruit or a glass of juice -- is a story much broader than most people know. The geography, agronomy, and economy of oranges is fascinating and complex; in his straightforward narrative style, McPhee answers questions about oranges that we did not know we had.

A half-century after publication, some details certainly have changed, but I recommend beginning the story of oranges with this book. The book does fail the test of time in one noticeable way: McPhee describes an industry entirely devoid of women, except as customers, and makes no comment about that imbalance. That he did not notice this in 1966 is not surprising, but some of the examples should have been mentioned in his 2000 preface.

All of the other McPhee books I have read are told from the point of view of biography. He writes about environmental ethics by introducing us to an environmentalist; he begins a geology story with the biography of a woman whose grandson would become a geologist; the world's shipping industry is seen from the point of view of an ordinary sailor. He does tell parts of the story of Oranges through the biographies of orange growers, scientists and marketers. The overall story, however, is told as autobiography. That is, he describes his own journey of exploration in an engaging, first-person narrative so that the reader is learning as he learns, as if peering over his shoulder. In this way, he teaches us not only good writing but also good research.

View all my reviews

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Standing Up By Sitting Down

Remembering a productive crime committed by nine black men on this date in 1960. The real crime, of course, was that sitting in a diner was considered a crime. In journalist Leoneda Inge's report on the anniversary, Clyde Perry describe segregated public services as something that was part of everyday experience when he was growing up in North Carolina. Nonetheless, the time had come to challenge those norms, so they did what was both right and unlawful.

This story describes how Chapel Hill -- especially the public library -- continues to honor their bravery. The local public-radio version of the story provides a bit more detail.
The four surviving members pose near the site of the former lunch counter.
L-R: Albert Williams, David Mason, Jr., Jim Merritt and Clyde Perry
Photo: Leoneda Inge, WUNC 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

From Eswatini to Flatbush

The Ezulwini Valley in the Kingdom of Eswatini, a.k.a. Swaziland
I am learning from many sources during my Africa sabbatical, and today's lesson was truly unexpected. On the way to my morning row, I caught -- as I often do -- a few minutes of The New Yorker Radio Hour. From this I learned that the actor Richard E. Grant -- of whom I have been only vaguely aware -- is, like me, somewhat smitten with a certain young entertainer from Flatbush.

No, not that one. She's from Minnesota. The one who is young for a person born a year before my parents were. New Yorker contributor Rachel Syme tells the story of Grant's passion for Barbra in a very geographic way, taking him to Streisand landmarks in New York City and sharing the story of the time he invited her to use his family's home in the Esulwini .  Valley as a retreat from the madding crowd.

Hear the entire charming tale at Dear Barbra, It's Me, Richard E. Grant.

Bamako, The Trial

As part of my Africa sabbatical, I have been exploring quite a few works related Mali and its neighbors along the Niger River. The 2006 film Bamako somehow got onto my list, and by the time the DVD arrived from Netflix, I had forgotten exactly why. Seeing the title, I assumed it had something to do with the music festivals for which that city was once known.

This impression was reinforced by the opening scene in which Senegal-born actress Aïssa Maïga portrays the lounge singer Melé, but I soon realized that this would be a very different sort of film than I expected. The film takes place in a wide courtyard near her family's home, and intertwines local and global stories of dysfunction.

While a tragedy involving Melé's husband unfolds, characters walk back and forth through some sort of legal proceedings. The exact nature of the legalities are not revealed until almost a full hour into this two-hour film; the audience becomes aware only gradually how the trial connects the lived experience of Africans with the policies that shape that experience from very far away.

The film has several valuable soliloquies, delivered both by African and European speakers. Each is a well-crafted indictment (or in one case defense) of the status quo that should be heard in its entirety. The best single line comes during closing arguments:
"We cannot throw Paul Wolfowitz into the Niger (River). The caimans (alligators) wouldn't want him."
The alternative i

I recommend seeking the DVD from Netflix or Amazon, as I do not know of a legitimate streaming source. At least at the moment, however, the entire film is on YouTube.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Toto's Rains of Africa

Early in my Africa sabbatical, I spent about 15 minutes going down the rabbit hole of the eponymous 1981 song by Toto. I reemerged quickly, but the song is still with me, consarnit! In a undoubtedly vain effort to stop it from playing in my head before I board a plane to Africa next month, I'm returning to that rabbit hole for a bit, this time bringing along any willing readers.

After all, if a serious public intellectual like Meghna Chakrabarti can devote 26 giggling minutes of her show to the questions raised by Weezer's unfortunate cover of the song (and the Twitter campaign that made it inevitable), I can justify a couple hours delving into some geographic considerations.

This Radio Boston program aired in August 2018, just before I was to teach  GEOG 388 -- Africa: People, Resources, Development for the first time. Because I somehow ended up teaching the course before the sabbatical in which I would plan the course, I grasped at more than a few straws for content, and playing the original music video on the first day was one of these straws.

I did so by waying of highlighting the fact that in the United States Africa exists primarily as a vague cluster of stereotypes, rather than the world's second-biggest continent. The original MTV video has two things to recommend it: is set in an imaginatively-staged library and it features a globe. Its connection to Africa is in the form of overworked and disjointed tropes.

This may be seen as ironic -- just as Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" was explicitly not "about" its subject, so too "Africa" has nothing to do with the place it names. The irony is celebrated by Namibian artist Max Siedentopf, who is -- as you read this -- playing "Africa" in Africa. Specifically, he has installed an armored, solar-powered, omni-directional speaker system that plays the song on infinite loop in an undisclosed location in the tractless Namib desert. He chose the oldest desert in the world, and though it is not as big as the Sahara, its very name means "vast," so that Toto has a good chance of playing for years without being heard.

BBC's report on this installation is what started me down this rabbit hole back in January, starting with a link to another BBC article about the surprising endurance of the song and its malleability into memes and parodies. By hiding the song in plain sight in a tangible but unknown place in Africa itself, Siedentopf in part reclaims continent's ownership of its own discourse. He disrupts -- or at least interrogates -- the problematic imbalance between the narrator and the periphery that is "down in" his subject.


It was from the reporting of Meghna Chakrabarti that I learned that "Africa" is an exemplar -- perhaps the exemplar -- of something known as yacht rock, a genre whose name derived from an internet television program produced only after the genre had been put to rest. Catchy tunes and vacuous lyricare hallmarks of yacht rock. This explains the longevity of a song that nobody can -- or even tries to -- explain.
I hear the drums echoing tonight
But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation
She's coming in, 12:30 flight
The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation
I stopped an old man along the way
Hoping to find some long forgotten words or ancient melodies
He turned to me as if to say, "Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you"
It's gonna take a lot to take me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had
The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what's right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become
It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had
Hurry boy, she's waiting there for you
It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
I bless the rains down in Africa
(I bless the rain)
I bless the rains down in Africa
(I bless the rain)
I bless the rains down in Africa
I bless the rains down in Africa
(Ah, gonna take the time)
Gonna take some time to do the things we never hadSongwriters: David Paich / Jeff PorcaroAfrica lyrics © Spirit Music Group

Coming the lyrics for geographic meaning, I find nothing more significant than a weak metaphor involving Kilimanjaro. I am still likely, however to play this song on opening day of my next GEOG 388 section in September.


In my "research" for this post, I learned of the existence of this artifact, an Africa picture disk. Rather than plunking $275 to buy one for a phonography I no longer own, I will share this virtual version.

Final Note (for now)

In the opening paragraph, I mention my upcoming trip "to Africa," reinforcing the common representation of it as a single place. It is, of course, a continent of 55 countries over a billion people, so I should be a bit more specific. I will be visiting Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban Maseru, and Johannesburg.

I will be carrying with me a giant National Geographic floor map of the entire continent to do some school programs while learning what I can of the geography of its southernmost edge. This blog, of course, will feature some of what I learn.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Gee's Bend Quilts

Quilting is mostly an indoor pursuit, I believe, but it was from the Oakland-based Outdoor Afro page that I learned of a most interesting community of quilters in Alabama. To be honest, the story caught my attention because the town -- Gee's Corner -- shares its name with one of my favorite alumni.

The Souls Grown Deep link opens a beautifully curated celebration of the prolific body of work created over generations in the tiny community about 30 miles west of Montgomery. The online exhibition describes the significance of several different types of quilts created by the women of the community, in some cases representing a family project over 3 or even 4 generations. Importantly, each quilt represented on the site -- a tiny fraction of the many that the women of Gee's Bend have created -- points to a biography of its main artist.
Mural by Jessie T. Pettway
Photo by Billy Milstead
The story of Gee's Bend quilts does have an outdoors component -- the tradition is celebrated in the Gee's Bend Quilt Mural Trail, including Bars and String-Pieced Columns by Jessie T. Pettway.

The community and its art are known as Gee's Bend, after Joseph Gee, who established a cotton plantation with 18 African American slaves on the site in 1816. Despite the association with the slaveholder, the mostly black residents opposed the imposition of the name Boykin by the Federal government in 1949. Thus a Google search of the original name leads to a map showing the new name.

The geography of the settlement -- and the many indignities imposed on the community by Alabama and U.S. governments over the decades -- are described in some detail by Kyes Stevens of Auburn University in the Gee's Bend entry in the online Encyclopedia of Alabama. The article includes links to other articles about Gee's Bend, and to related articles on the geographies of Alabama's Black Belt. The historical geography of Gee's Bend is a case study in the creativity and insidious nature of voter suppression, which continues to this day in various guises.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Frida La Pared

Frida Kahlo --- Border portrait 1932
Click image to expand
As my former homes near the U.S-Mexico border are constantly on my mind and in the news, and as I anticipate a visit to exhibits of the works of Frida Kahlo and Graciela Iturbide at the MFA, I learn of this remarkable portrait. As with all of her works, her own body is one of many metaphors in play; in this case, she stands between the stark contrasts of her two home countries. The symbolism is examined fully in Along the Boarder [sic] Line, an entry on the extensive website dedicated to her legacy.

I learned of this work from a review of a 2016 exhibit of Mexican modernism by art journalist Holland Carter.


The Kahlo exhibit is receiving a lot of interest in Boston media, including Beyond the Suffering, an insightful commentary by WBUR arts journalist Maria Garcia.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

To Bonaly

Surya Bonaty
Getty Images via WNYC
Several years before my grandmother's death, I had the opportunity to spend a few days with my grandmother while I was attending a conference in Washington, D.C.

It was more evenings than days, actually, as I would drive to a Metro station from her house in Fairfax for each day of the meeting, and head back out to Fairfax each evening for dinner at her kitchen table, followed by conversation that would stretch long into the evening, each of us fighting sleep for the chance to keep the conversations going.

Those conversations impressed on my two things about my grandmother that I had known to some degree, but had not fully understood. One was that she had become rather radical politically -- every book Michael Moore had written to date was on her shelf, and she could quote chapter and verse, just as she could from her King James (no relation) Bible.

The other was that she was an avid an knowledgeable fan of figure skating -- her opinions of Michelle Kwan were as positive as those of the Presidents Bush were negative.

All of which is to say she would have known about this performance from the 1998 Olympics, and at least something of its significance. French skater Surya Bonaly gives a performance that belies the fact of injuries that would have prevent me from walking across a room. But it is something she does at 3:30 in the clip that has led people to view this grainy video over a million times.

 Speculation about why she performed this remarkable feat began 2 seconds after the jump, and continues 2 decades later. I learned of this remarkable leap -- now known simply as "The Bonaly" -- in the context of her life story. In an episode of Radio Lab entitled "On the Edge," journalists Latif Nasser and Tracie Hunte tell the story of an athlete who reaches the highest levels in a sport with just enough subjectivity in its scoring to leave her with strong doubts about every silver medal she earned.
I recommend listening to Surya Bonaly's story, and only regret that I could not listen to it again with my grandmother. The conversation about race and skating would have gone long into the night.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Venezuela: Selective Indignation

As Venezuela erupts in violence and the United States moves quickly and unilaterally to capture its oil, historian Miguel Tinker Salas offers some useful background.
Although many reviewers of Salas' most recent book find him to be too sympathetic to Maduro, he puts the current crisis in the appropriate context of other interventions in the region. One need not support Maduro to oppose his forced ouster.

In a recent editorial statement, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs makes much the same case, in more detail. It is from the COHA statement on Venezuela that I lifted the title of this post. In a world full of legitimate causes of indignation, it is instructive to notice which human-rights crises lead to interventions, and which do not. Oil is not the only cause -- the Obama administration had other reasons for supporting a right-wing coup in Honduras -- but it very often is.

If the United States gets involved in Venezuela militarily -- which seems very likely -- it will have been optional, and it will have been under the leadership of two of the architects of the worst policies of the 1980s, one convicted and one unindicted.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Mexico Contrasts, In Black & White

“Mujer Ángel, Desierto de Sonora, México (Angel Woman, Sonora Desert, Mexico),”
1979. Graciela Iturbide / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston & New York Times
In her recent article Graciela Iturbide's Photos of Mexico Make 'Visible What, To Many, Is Invisible' is an treasure in the form of a very unusual photo essay. All of the images are by a renowned photographer who continues to interpret her cultural landscape five decades after taking up her profession. All of the text is by Evelyn Nieves, a journalist who clearly delights in introducing Iturbide's work to (mostly) new viewers.

That work informs viewers of a rich tapestry of unexpected contrasts captured in many places throughout Mexico. Those of us in the Boston area are -- for now -- very fortunate that we can begin our exploration in this Times article and continue it in an exhibition of Iturbide's work at the Museum of Fine Arts this January 19 to May 12. Some of the work -- including the arresting image of a prosthetic leg and boot -- will be part of a separate exhibition of works about the great artist Frida Kahlo, February 27 to June 16. I will be visiting some time in the overlap between the two.


I look forward to exploring more work under the byline of Evelyn Nieves, much of which celebrates the work of photographers.

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