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

Toto Forever, 2019
Max Siedentopf

plinths and solar powered music system

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.

Learn more -- and find a link to some other extremely remote artworks -- from Siedentopf's own Toto Forever web page.


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 (or disc). Rather than plunking $275 to buy one for a phonograph I no longer own, I tried to share a virtual version. Revisiting this post in 2022, I found it has been removed on copyright grounds, so to recreate the effect, you can play the song with a link above and spin your computer while looking at this picture of the picture.

A Bit of Perspective

A friend and colleague from South Africa shared a 2018 article -- originally published in Rolling Stone -- that attempts to make sense of the strange popularity of the song. Rob Sheffield's insight is best captured in his use of the phrase even by clueless eighties standards. It is a song about placelessness, literal and metaphorical.

I have returned to this post at the end of 2022 because a friend just shared the following silliness.

And now for the actual rains ... 

Rainfall, climate, and biogeographic patterns in Africa exhibit more symmetry (north-to-south) than other continents because Africa is essentially centered on the equator and stretches from small Mediterranean climate zones at each end, through regions dominated by subtropical high-pressure belts, to a center in which the Intertropical Convergence Zone (Our Friend the ITCZ) migrates as it tries to follow the sun.

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.

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