Friday, January 30, 2009

Class registration

The spring semester begins on Sunday and, like last semester, I am teaching three classes. Two of them--Experiencing Creativity (the core humanities class I taught in the fall) and African Literature--are already full and the third--19th Century American Literature--is under-enrolled with only 6 students so far (though it will not prevent the class from running). I am as surprised by the low enrollment for American literature as I am by the impressive numbers for African literature. At my previous institution, the American literature surveys would always fill up and my African course had very low enrollment. I had expected something similar here...America's cultural cache is transnational, no?

How can I explain this difference? I am not sure. Other than a handful of students who I have taught previously, I can't tell much about who the students are in these classes yet (classes, majors, nationalities, etc.). One obvious answer would be that African students are more interested in African literature; however, most of my students here would not identify themselves in that way (though I am teaching a story by Egyptian writer Yousef Idris to challenge some of these geographical categorizations). And American literature was relatively popular at University of Kinshasa, though Angolophone African literature was as well.

I like being a situation like this where I don't know something I thought I knew and am excited to see how it plays out in the classroom.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Zapatos para Bush

Back in Cairo, I finally have a moment to report on the week that was—for me mostly spent in Mexico City.

It was a great trip with lots of art (especially murals like this one by Diego Rivera),
good eating, and some pyramids.

(Those familiar with the Giza pyramids may find the following sign illuminating.)

There is a lot more to say about all of this—and something to say about our recent return to Cairo—but for now I will describe how I spent January 20, 2009. It began with me incredibly jealous of Jenna, who was in Washington for the inauguration, and ended...well, read on.

In the morning, I made my way to the Anahuacalli, a cultural center dreamt up and built by Rivera. Its centerpiece is an Aztec-style building he designed to displays his enormous collection of pre-Hispanic art. He began the project but passed away before it was complete. Juan O’Gorman and others finished it. It is a great space and a fascinating vision. The design is largely pre-Hispanic American, but there is some other iconography included as well (and seen on this ceiling mosaic).

Next stop was a performance by my friend and host Gabrielle. She produced "In and Out of Place (MLK y Obama)," an art action to commemorate the inauguration of Obama and the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. An eight-piece mariachi band performed four songs, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (the African American national anthem written by James Weldon Johnson and his brother Rosamond Johnson), Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday,” James Brown’s “Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud),” and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It was, I thought, a great tribute, which took place in a public square in Mexico City, not far from the US Embassy. There was decent turnout from media, expatriates, and curious passers-by. I don’t have photos of my own because I was using Gabrielle’s video camera, but here are some videos (not taken by me) posted to You Tube that tell the story a bit better than I can. Bravo, Gabrielle!

The square where this performance took place was one block from the US Embassy, which is blocked from Paseo de la Reforma by a huge metal barricade and Mexican military installation. In front of the metal blockade was an installation that a Mexican had produced, “Zapatos para Bush.” A lovely farewell kiss to the former US President. The display has shoes on the sidewalk and pictures hanging in front of the fence. Passers-by were encouraged to draw their own shoes as farewell displays. Another really thoughtful public art action in Mexico City.

I was able to watch part of the inauguration during the day—the Speech, Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, Joseph Lowery’s benediction.

In the evening, we celebrated with a Lucha Libre professional wrestling match at the Arena Mexico. This is wrestling where most of the athletes wear lycra masks that are indicative of his or her character. The matches I saw were incredible—great displays of athletic acrobatics and physical comedy. The stadium was full of families and other sorts of fans who most typically show their allegiance to a fighter by wearing his or her mask during their match. Since there were five matches on the card, true fans brought backpacks with several masks so that they could change costume before the start of each match. These masks are not only popular among the kids in attendance, but with the adults as well, who would wear these masks, except when they needed to eat the fish sticks or ramen noodles that vendors in the arena are selling. You can check out the CMLL (Mexican WWF) site which currently has photos and results from the 20 enero 2009 event I saw (not sure if those will stay up).

(Cameras were not allowed so I don’t have any pictures of my own.)

On my way out of the arena, I stopped in the men’s room. As I entered, I noticed that all of the fifteen urinals were occupied, about half of them by men still wearing their luchero masks. Quite a sight that seems to be deserving of a New Yorker cartoon. The entire day was wonderful, joyful, and surreal and, for me, seemed to end in appropriate fashion.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Studying Arabic on the streets of Philadelphia

The Presbyterian Historical Society is at 5th and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia, which is a healthy but pleasant 30-35 minute walk from my mom’s apartment, where I am staying. In the mornings, I walk over, listening, like many other pedestrians, to my headphones. I have been using my morning commute to study Arabic from some language CDs I loaded onto my ipod. It is a listen-and-repeat method, so I spend the mornings, walking around Philadelphia, talking aloud to myself in Arabic, asking questions like, “Is that Elhamra Street over there?” or “Would you like to eat something later?”

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Back at the archives

Back at the archives after a layoff, I am finding some more valuable materials. I found a report from a 1922 London meeting between Protestant missionary leaders and the Belgian Governor of the Congo in which the Governor specifically insisted, among other things, that the missions work to maintain white supremacy in Congo. For example, one of the particularly vehement requests was that no “natives” be empowered to perform baptisms. Providing black people with any sort of authority would undermine Belgium’s regime. This extended to the few remaining African American missionaries. During this meeting, the governor agreed not to interfere with any serving missionaries, but told everyone present that the Belgians would not authorize any future black missionaries, a promise which they managed to keep, to the best that I can tell, until 1957. Another cache of materials from the same time frame includes references to Marcus Garvey. The Belgians were aware of Garvey and concerned that the African American missionaries were Garveyites, which was deemed a potential threat to colonial power. Regardless of how scholars today characterize Garvey and his politics, this part of the story--that Garvey was considered a threat to European colonialism in Africa--can not be ignored.

Another folder of materials discussed an earlier case from 1905 in which a white male missionary from Scotland apparently made romantic overtures (though not an actual marriage proposal) to a black female missionary from Alabama (which included sending a friendly letter to her father). This proved a scandal and the near dismissal of the man. There are letters between the missionaries in Congo, the mission board in Nashville, and others discussing how important it was to prevent this union from happening. The correspondence record is incomplete, so it is hard to get a full picture. One observation—the woman here is represented as the less culpable party. To what extent this assessment was based on racial or gender perceptions remains unclear to me.

What does all of this mean? These materials point toward the concrete connections, which so fascinate me, between the racial politics of the US and imperialism.


Two more days in the archives, then I am off to visit a friend in Mexico City.

Friday, January 9, 2009

In Memoriam

My first post of the year is a sad one. My grandmother passed away on Saturday, January 3. My birthday! To add to the coincidence (if it is that), she was living in a nursing home on the same campus as the hospital where I was born.

I’m not sure that my blog is the place to write justly about such things. I miss her, but fortunately I was able to visit with her on December 31 in the afternoon. She seemed tired, but peaceful. I am also grateful that I have had this time in Philadelphia to spend with family remembering and celebrating her. I appreciate all of the kind thoughts and wishes that folks have sent.

Consider this my explanation for infrequent blog postings. I have missed several days of research but should be back in the archives on Monday. I will try to post something new in the early part of next week.