Narrative, Empathy, Trust, and #NCPH2019

Circles are interesting things. Providing an illusion of comfort, they are made up of a series of dots meant to be equidistant from its central point. If you are standing in one, the shape provides a sense of belonging. That we are all in this, whatever this is, together.

Plain Talk History Postcards
A give away from one of our exhibitors at NCPH 2019, I brought a stack of these postcards back to my office for my colleagues to fill out.

However, in a circle there is nowhere to hide. While they imply equal footing, equal power, they also represent transparency, or the hope for clarity.

With that in mind, I spent the 2019 National Council on Public History Annual meeting in circles. These circles were tangible, physical, and metaphorical — but they all connected to a central conversation about the ethics of being a historian. About our truths as professionals where neutrality is no longer an option.

Continue reading “Narrative, Empathy, Trust, and #NCPH2019”

MuseumNext: Ten Things I Learned About Storytelling and Collaborative Projects

Last November I received a grant to attend a conference I’d had my eye on for a while. A two-day speaker driven event, MuseumNext  is a space where individuals from across the museum world (and I do mean world) gather to share the best examples in museum production and practice. For this particular Museum Next, the focus was “designing the future of museums,” and the talks presented dealt with topics ranging from using augmented and virtual reality, to creating unique experiences for visitor engagement.

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While not all of the talks were useful to me, I did end up with some key takeaways. These lessons ranged from the philosophical or motivational to practical tips for planning big (and small) innovative projects. Continue reading “MuseumNext: Ten Things I Learned About Storytelling and Collaborative Projects”

Still I Rise: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

jamesbaldwinnmaahc

The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it…history is literally present in all that we do. – James Baldwin

Over the last year or so I’ve watched as the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) rose up on the National Mall.  From the outside it felt like an inspired decorative container, monolithic from afar but interwoven and detailed from close up. My impression changed once I stepped inside. Clean lines, curved staircases, and the decorative metalwork of the exterior provided an incredible sense of openness, a constant reminder as I traveled from gallery to gallery that this is a museum embedded in the landscape of the core of Washington D.C.

A foundation. A place to start.

And so in trying to frame my first NMAAHC visit I thought about writing a traditional exhibit review discussing content, display choices, and interpretive designbut that just didn’t feel quite…right. Rather, my first visit felt incredibly emotional. In some ways indescribable, walking through the museum felt like when you peer through new glasses for the first time. Everything seemed clearer, more in tune, more complete. Continue reading “Still I Rise: The National Museum of African American History and Culture”

Talking Honestly About the Past

It’s been over a week and I’m still thinking about the Slate Academy symposium “How Do We Get Americans to Talk Honestly about Slavery.” Why? It’s not just because the subject matter resonates with a lot of current events on race and class. It’s not just because the panel mimicked how I think about public history i.e. through a broader lens of objects, oral histories, literature, and popular culture. Rather, it is because the conversation presented to us represents a lesson on how to talk honestly about the entire past, period.

A culmination of a podcasting series for Slate Academy the live symposium brought together experiential historians, museum professionals, divers, authors, critics, and a pop culture icon to investigate the process of myth-making surrounding slavery. The strength of the symposium lay in participants ability to delve beneath the surface of history to identify ways to encourage a dialogue in the face of resistance. To investigate, as culinary historian Michael Twitty says, how “slavery is not a blip, but a chronic condition.”
Continue reading “Talking Honestly About the Past”

Telling the (Hi)story of Jim Crow

There is a moment when you settle into your seats at a movie theater where you leave your sense of realism behind. You know that what you are about to see is a construction. A piecing together of someone else’s vision based on a nugget of an idea. For movies based on history that suspension of belief depends on how much you trust the writers, directors and the story you are being presented.

It’s all about interpretation, right?

Sign on a Restaurant in Lancaster, OH (c. 1938) Credit: Ben Shahn, from the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1997017528/PP/)

One of the blogs that I read on a regular basis is called Interpreting Slave Life, which talks about the craft of telling the story of slavery. It is a tough job, requiring nuanced approach and a lot of thought. How can an interpretative approach demonstrate the complexity, the relationships? If you only have ten minutes with a group, what do you want them to walk away learning? The author, Nicole Moore takes the challenge head on and presents a nuanced approach in the telling.

That nuanced approach is also imperative when interpreting any period of history, and recently I’ve found myself looking at the differences between three narratives of Jim Crow. The first is an entirely fictional account of African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi, the second a recent action movie depicting the lives of the Tuskegee Airman, and finally a history text that narrates the migration of African Americans north during the same period. Each of these uses different storytelling tools (some more problematic than others) to convey the story of Jim Crow.

The Help

When putting together my “best of” list of books, movies etc., from this past year I put The Help in both the book and movie category. In terms of storytelling I found the narrative to be engaging—while also providing a glimpse into the day-to-day indignities to African American’s by Jim Crow.

Credit: http://www.imdb.com

But it’s not a perfect story—one that has garnered a lot of discussion and anger on a variety of viewers. The Association for Black Women’s Historians released a statement about the movie stating that The Help “distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers,” specifically that it resurrects the “mammy” stereotype, misrepresents dialect of African American culture and speech, and “limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness” by “group of attractive, well dressed, society women.”

In contrast, an article in the New Republic by John McWhorter makes the argument that the movie sought by The Help’s critics “might make a kind of sense if American society were actually as resistant to acknowledging racism as we are so often told. One might see the film as a precious opportunity to introduce a forgotten story, and understandably wince to see the focus on living rooms rather than streets, women in the afternoon rather than Klansmen at night, and sprinklings of harmony in a story that should be about gunshots and fire hoses.”

Like any good historian, I recognize that bringing these stories to life often brings with it controversy, which is an important part of ensuring a dialogue, and making sure that no one version dominates the telling of this history. Part of why I found the story so effective was that it parsed down, to a granular level just how specific “separate but equal” became. That the very real danger of Jim Crow was that any given moment, the offense taken by whites in the south could be used as a reason for penalty—even if it was as non-violent losing your job, a consequence of incredible impact when opportunities for African American women were so hard to come by.

I do agree that there is also the problem of agency—that the narrative is on one level about a white woman reaching out to African American women asking them to tell their story rather than a group of African American women acting on it themselves. However, it remains compelling because of the way the book and movie acknowledges how the ugliness, the brutality, and the violence of a time barely fifty years past could have manifested itself in a more insidious nature—where many southern Americans were complicit in perpetuating a system of culture and fear, of power right down to the simple act of going to the restroom.

Red Tails

I had held off on putting together this post because I wanted to wait to see the Anthony Hemingway film (The Wire, Ali) Red Tails. I had heard about this move a few years ago, not because I wanted to learn more about the Tuskegee Airman (I had other avenues for that) but because of my interest in science fiction. As a Star Wars fan, I had read about George Lucas’ interest in having this film made and I recognized how powerful a film this could be with his backing.

The movie is alright. Not great, but good. As a film about fighter pilots it succeeds in drawing you in to the bravery and the difficulties of fighting against German jet planes. It succeeds in showing how the Tuskegee Airman proved themselves, breaking stereotype after stereotype, in a simplistic way. In interviews prior to its release Lucas stated that he wanted to make a movie that showed 14 year old boys want courage was.

Credit: http://www.redtails2012.com

But what about how it tells the story of Jim Crow? Like The Help it lacks grit (and as a friend said, if you go in expecting Saving Private Ryan, you’ll be disappointed). It is filmed in a style that feels almost nostalgic and romantic, trying to present the narrative of fighting for your country while being treated as second class citizens.

I think this is part of its difficulty. Where The Help looks at Jim Crow and successfully illustrates its dehumanizing nature, Red Tails (though taking place roughly twenty years earlier) takes it and reduces it to single lines, and single acts that are almost apart from the heroes that it affects.

Yes, the movie tries to show that these men are being underutilized; their skills are marginalized, placing them at an Italian air base where all they do is sit around waiting for the opportunity to do what they were trained for. Yes, it underscores, without any hint of subtly the poor equipment, the crappy supplies and ridiculous missions they were given.

But the moments of overt racism—a single line in a board room in the Pentagon, a use of the n-word in the “whites only” officers club, feel like an obvious attempt to point out racism rather than allowing it to flow seamlessly in the narrative. What the movie lacks, unfortunately is the context—the larger story of the Tuskegee Airman and how they were formed, which would have added further weight (in the movie) to the accomplishments of the 332nd Fighter Group.

One last thought, I recognize that the issues I had with the portrayal in Red Tails can be construed as an argument for the movie to stray away from the singular story that Lucas wanted to tell–the snapshot of the moment where the 332nd was able to prove themselves as more than what was expected of them (and in a modern sense, prove that a big budget action movie can be made with an all African American cast and still be successful). However, I think that as far as telling the (hi)story of Jim Crow it just misses the bull’s-eye.

The Warmth of Other Suns

A few months ago I had the opportunity to listen to Isabel Wilkerson give a speech at the National Preservation Conference in Buffalo, NY. A Pulitzer Prize winning author, Wilkerson wrote an incredible book about the great migration of African Americans from Jim Crow called The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

Two weeks ago, on Martin Luther King Day (which I found apt) I finished the book, and thought that it offered a great counter point to the other two narratives discussed in this blog. Unlike the two movies (and book), this is a non-fiction, history book. However, simply calling it non-fiction belittles its impact, in that while being a history book, it is very much falls within the realm of popular history—one that tells the story of an important piece of American history in a real and engaging way.

Credit: isabelwilkerson.com

In short, the great migration was a period of American history that started in roughly 1915 and lasted through to the conclusion of Jim Crow in the 1960s. By the 1970s over six million African American’s had left their homes for new cities in the North and the West, and for ten years Isabel Wilkerson sought out their stories becoming, as historian Jill Lepore states in her review “a one-woman W.P.A. project. Her research took more than ten years, and is not unlike another chunk of work done by the Federal Writers’ Project: documenting the history of slavery, before its memory faded altogether.”

What I want to focus on is how Wilkerson tells the hi(story) of Jim Crow. Over the scope of seventy plus years she takes us through the lives of three individuals: Robert Pershing Foster, George Swanson Starling , and Ida Mae Brandon Gladney. In a narrative format (as opposed to using the voice of historical authority) Wilkerson allows us into individual lives, while using other sections to pull us out to see the broader context. It is an effective method, making us feel how individual decisions led to different paths out of the South, while telling us about the migration on a grander scale at the same time.

She does not hesitate to show the differences. That for some the decision to leave was a culmination of years of indignity, while for others it was due to a specific threat and fear. In using the individual stories she is able to show the vileness of Jim Crow and how no one was immune to the terror it brought to the African-American community. In the same vein she uses the mechanism to show what happened after—from the struggle to make ends meet in the north (including that all was not rosy and perfect after migration), and that each person chose to fight racism in different ways.

This can be seen through the life of Robert Pershing Foster, a surgeon who was married the daughter of the President of Atlanta University who believed “to his way of thinking, the way to change things was to be better than anybody at whatever you did, wear them down with your brilliance, and enjoy the heck out of doing it. So he had no patience for these sit-in displays, at least for his daughters anyway, much less actual violence.” (Wilkerson, 410)

What is great about this book, that movies like The Help and Red Tails cannot do with their limited scope, is that it shows the effect of Jim Crow on American history. That “many black parents who left the South got the one thing they wanted just by leaving. Their children would have a chance to grow up free of Jim Crow and to be their fuller selves. It cannot be known what course the lives of people like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis…and countless others might have taken had their parents or grandparents not participated in the great migration and raised in the North or West.” (Wilkerson, 535)

The other piece that I appreciated about the book was how she used quotations from African-American writers like Langston Hughes to frame each chapter’s discussion, to show how these people expressed themselves in song, in poetry, and through literature about the life they had left behind, and the new one they had come to embrace.

A lot of history books take the chronological approach, looking at a particular period of history through the eyes of many individual stories that are illustrations of a broader historical narrative. In choosing to use three specific stories, ones that she chose for the three “paths” taken by African-Americans to escape the south, you feel more connected, and are able to understand more about why Pershing, Starling, and Gladney chose the road they took.

~~~

Official US Army Air Force Training Command photograph of 20 Tuskegee Airmen posing in front of a plane. Robert Glass is in the middle of the 3rd row. His signature, and that of 10 other colleagues are inscribed on the photograph. Credit (including caption): http://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/tuskegee/lgimage/air28.htm

Near the end of her book Isabelle Wilkerson states that the Great Migration was “if nothing else, an affirmation of the power of an individual decision, however powerless the individual might appear on the surface. “In the simple process of walking away one by one,” wrote the scholar Lawrence R. Rodgers, “millions of African-American southerners have altered the course of their own, and of all America’s, history.” (Wilkerson, 538)

I also believe strongly that even though some of these narratives miss the mark more than others, that these stories need to continue to be told in a popular mediums, to urge public dialogue and conversations about race in America in a very real way.

Articles of Interest

The Help

Open Statement to the Fans of The Help

‘The Help’ Isn’t Racist. Its Critics Are. (The New Republic)

New York Times movie review

HuffPost review

A Critical Review of the Help (Blog)

Red Tails

National Park Service: Tuskegee Airman

Red Tails on National Public Radio

The Tuskegee Airmen Are for Everyone (Huff Post)

‘Red Tails’ a disservice to Tuskegee Airmen

Also see: The Tuskegee Airman (HBO/PBS)

The Warmth of Other Suns

Book Review on The New York Times

The Uprooted (The New Yorker) by Jill Lepore

The Power of the Cover

At first glance it is the color that forces me to stop. Something about the way they play together—within shapes, images, old photographs. The different hues mash together into an emotion….

…as I read the words. The Bluest Eye, Cat’s Cradle, A Dance with Dragons.

Together the design serves as a teaser for the text that lies between—a teaser for the good, the bad, and the horribly disappointing.

This post is about the power of the Cover, and how sometimes the cover is the difference between reading the summary flap or just walking by without a second glance.

When I was in college I worked at a Barnes and Noble where one of our jobs was to go through the shelves and do face outs to make the shelves look full. This also served as a way to highlight a specific title. Often times when I walked through I tended to be influenced by what had read, or heard about from others,  and those were the books that got that extra attention. But sometimes the cover that I highlighted was one that was beautiful, intriguing, and expressive.  Because our store was a hub of tourist activity (it was in the middle of Merchant’s Square in Colonial Williamsburg) we tended to get a lot more browsers in addition to our regular customers and so making sure that those shelves were especially attractive was important.

Another part of my job involved working at the information desk. On more than one occasion I would have conversation that went like this:

Customer: Hi I’m looking for a particular book.

Me: Sure, can you tell me the title?

Customer: No.

Me: How about the author?

Customer: Nope.

Me:    

Customer: …but I do know that the book was redish orange, with a circle in the middle. And it was set in Scotland?

More seriously, this is where the power that lies within a cover came up. If it was a piece of popular fiction more often than not one of us would recognize it based on the cover description, and would be able to find the book for the customer.  It provides an element of identification, a marker for those looking to read it. In other cases if we could narrow down the genre just walking through the shelves sometimes produced results.

So let’s take a moment and look at the book cover as an object/a piece of material culture:

Observation: The cover serves a variety of purposes. As mentioned above it is an illustration of what exists with in the book. A symbolic summary of what we will learn, enjoy, and experience. It is also meant to be, perhaps first and foremost, a piece of information. What is this book called, who is its author. You know that when you pull the book off the shelf, the back cover will tell you either more about the title or provide titillating one sentence reviews of the book from similar authors, and newspapers. Thirdly, the cover is a marketing piece. It distinguishes this particular book from that particular book.  Sometimes the cover design distinguishes one publisher from another (my favorite? Vintage Classics).

According to this essay in the Guardian, illustrated book covers, particularly early dust jackets, did not come into vogue until the late 19th century. Until then the covers of books were served as protection or as a space for advertising what other books the publisher was producing rather than the specific title in hand. The article, as do many other sites around the web, also point out the importance of the book cover/dust jacket/book jacket in the mode of identification—something that I described in an earlier blog post “Prelude to the Power of the Cover.

Continued Analysis leads me to acknowledge that even over the years book covers change with time. If one were to trace the evolution of an older title one would find multiple versions of the book depending on who and when it was published. Even today it has become popular practice to publish new reprints of books in tandem with the movie adaptation, and despite liking said adaptation, these covers often invoke a sense of impurity. A sense that is especially frustrating when the movie adaptation is nothing like the words that you have grown to love.

Just for fun, open a new browser window and do a search under Google Images. Type in “Lord of the Rings Book Covers.” to see how many different versions pop up. The version I have (left below) is very different from the version my roommate (right below). I’m sure that somewhere out there are book cover collectors who can identify who the artist and the creator of each edition of their favorite book is by—and the availability of said edition determines worth. I know that when choosing a book to own and when presented with multiple cover options (all other things being equal)–I tend to lean towards the more aesthetically pleasing edition.

Interpreting covers is a larger conversation—and probably demands a lot more research that I have had time to give. However, each edition, each design, says something about the times in which we live (see above commentary on movie covers). And in an age of e-books the purpose of covers has changed—e-ink doesn’t allow for full color imaging, despite making the ability to read text easier on the eye. Additionally the art on the page is probably a reflection of imagination, but also cultural influences in that particular period of time.  More specifically I find myself thinking about how the widespread censorship in Nazi Germany dictated how books were designed and marketed–and what we can learn by looking at these different covers about the messages that the Nazi’s were propagating.

As a piece of every day life, a cover says a lot about what we as a country and as a society are reading. In an age of mass marketing, seeing the cover everywhere only stimulates the brain into wanting to know more, learn more, and experience it first hand.

The Guessing Game

I first started thinking about this blog post almost a year ago when CBS Sunday Morning put together this segment (watch it here). Narrated by Erin Moriarty the piece looks at book covers as an element of our visual landscape—that they are, in fact, pieces of art.  Art  provides a glimpse into how people are feeling about particular events in the outward world–and like the Mona Lisa, a Mark Rothko painting, or Monet’s Water Lilies covers are seared into our minds. So let’s play a little game:

Can you identify this book by its cover?

How about this one?

or this one?

This exercise made me think about the book cover as it moves into its next phase of existence, where (as both the Guardian and the Sunday Morning piece explain) the digital world is using the cover in entirely new ways that shift the function of the book into a new medium (after all you can’t see what someone is reading when they are on a Kindle or a Nook). In fact, when I start reading a book on my Kindle it starts on the first page, automatically bypassing the title/author acknowledgement/index.  In this way the cover is perhaps reduced to playing merely an informational role, without the vivid colors and design elements translating easily into e-ink.  I do acknowledge that on color e-readers you can see covers in much the same way as you see them off screen–but even then its a digitized form, without the texture of the physical copy.

Of course books aren’t completely gone from our physical landscape, and I very much doubt that they will ever be completely eradicated.  I also recognize that not everyone cares as much as I do about the face of a book–and look to word of mouth to find new titles. I do hope, however that we’ll still be able to see a book cover that is as with iconic as the covers for Catch-22, Jurassic Park, and The Great Gatsby.

Personal Inspiration

In preparing this post I thought it would be fun to look at some of my favorites. So here are a few book covers that I love:

Tana French’s book is startlingly creepy–the branches of the tree emblematic of the complexity of the mystery that lies within. This is my favorite cover of Little Dorrit partially because it juxtaposes the door of the Marshalsea with Amy’s form. The way her hand clutches her skirt indicates movement as she passes from her father’s walled prison into the chaos of London. I love this cover of Stardust primarily for its whimsy.

As I mentioned on this blog, a few weeks ago a dear friend passed away. Before she died we had talked about “the power of the cover” and she took the time to send a few of her favorites my way:

I also sent the request out over Twitter, and one of my followers pointed out these two covers. When I asked for an explanation @EttaHRichardson tweeted that the covers are attractive because of “the grandeur that the building maintains” for the first and “it’s the style, a bit Voo-doo & Cartoon but fresh and edgy” for the second.

I guess for me, the power of the cover is in its ability to inspire imagination. That the artwork, the layout, and the text all provides that initial jump into the unknown,  into a world that is filled with tales of heroic acts or dastardly deeds, a world filled with the enigmatic, the charismatic, the magical, and the ordinary, and a world filled with stories, and storytellers.  It is the power of the cover which starts us on this journey, one that begins  long before you even open the book in your hand.

Note: Just a note that for those of you that are in DC that you should visit the National Book Festival down on the National Mall. It will take place September 24-25, 2011.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Google Images, Amazon.com, WSJ.com

Be an Upstander: Youth Programming and the 2011 AAM Conference

By guest blogger Linda Neylon

This year’s American Association of Museums Annual Meeting in Houston, Texas, was the third of these that I have attended. And while each year varies in usefulness to me,  this year’s conference in Houston proved to be one of the most interesting I have been to. Though it has been a few months since the conference I still have many thoughts running through my head from the sessions, as well as from the city itself.

I have never been to Texas, and was looking forward to the experience. One of the people I met at the conference grew up in Texas, and told me that people often ask her if she rode a horse to school.  While I did not think that would be the lifestyle, I will say I was surprised that the only people I saw in cowboy boots at the conference were from the north.  Besides the clothing expectation, I am not sure exactly what I thought Texas would be like—but Houston was definitely not it.

PODS ArtThe city was sprawling, and parts of it reminded me of Levittown, Pennsylvania.  But the area around the conference (downtown, and near Minute Maid Park) was great.  There is a park there call the Discovery Green, that I wish I could have brought back to Pennsylvania.  There were basic science experiences, such as seats with concave backs where two people could talk from a distance and still hear each other.  There were PODS set up in which artists had created pieces, including a “box of curiosities” with an exhibit about Joaquin Squirrelieta: The Battle for Campo De Los Cacahuetes.  This particular art piece spoke to me, seeing the artists’ interpretation of what museums—particularly history museums, are.  And if this is the case, it needs to change.  It was a funny and creative parody, but it would be a sad, sad museum.

So how should we be moving forward with museums?  Many of my colleagues and I are realizing that we need to think beyond the traditional methods of interpretation in museums, and to look at perhaps the scariest audience group we have…teenagers!  I think many of us have something to learn from the Holocaust Museum Houston.

The mission of this museum is: “Holocaust Museum Houston is dedicated to educating people about the Holocaust, remembering the 6 million Jews and other innocent victims and honoring the survivors’ legacy. Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, we teach the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy.”  This mission is summed up very succinctly throughout their website, marketing materials, and gift shop, in sentences like “Stop Hate.  Starting Here.”  The museum is a very powerful one, with a very active group of volunteers who are also survivors.  The topic, artifacts, and exhibits are moving, but every step of the way, visitors on a guided tour are reminded of a triangle that the docent carries.  This triangle has three points- “perpetrators,” “bystanders,” and “upstanders,” with “victims” in the middle.  The triangle is used to show that everyone outside of the victims, or targets of hate, have a choice in how they handle it.  Will you pretend that you don’t hear your friend making racist jokes?  Will you stand up for the people your friend is making jokes about (be an “upstander”), or will you participate in making those jokes?

This idea is carried throughout the museum and its programming.  Its program,  Youth and the Law, takes these ideas to at-risk juveniles, as part of the city’s anti-gang task force.  Listening to the educator, I became truly inspired.  She told us that the recidivism rate (the number of times someone re-offends) for teens in her program is lower than that of the standard punishment for juveniles considered at-risk for gangs. While not every museum has the content and ability to participate in something exactly like this, I do think we all have the ability, no matter how hard it is to see at first, to connect to our youth in an important way.

While most of the conference was full of thought-provoking sessions, the time spent at the Holocaust Museum Houston has stuck with me.  It has reminded me of what is possible, and where I have been.  When I worked at the York County Heritage Trust, I worked with teen volunteers (ages 13-18) each year, teaching them history and how to interpret.  Today, many of the teens that have reached college age are studying history in school.  They connected to their history, and it has had a lasting impression.  I feel like I have lost sight of that possibility in recent years, and my time in Houston reminded me of my love for working with teens, and the endless opportunities this age group really does present.  If the Holocaust Museum Houston can have the impact it has had on teens, imagine what more our history museums can accomplish!

~~~

Linda Neylon is a public historian with experience in youth and adult education and interpretation.  She is a graduate of American University’s Public History program, and most recently directed the education program at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

Prelude to The Power of the Cover: The Deathly Hallows

Eleven years ago July (ELEVEN years!). I’m on my way home from an internship, just a few weeks before I go to college. It is Pre-Twitter. Pre-Facebook. Pre-easy access to the internet.

Map of the blue line. We started off at Federal Triangle and continued straight on until Franconia Springfield.

I settled myself on a blue line train at Federal Triangle with a woman who is holding a pretty hefty book in her hand. It’s a green cover with a cartooney looking boy with horn rimmed glasses.

She ends up sitting across the train from me, but still within my line of vision, and as we travel I find myself without anything to occupy myself, choosing to look out the window instead….and people watch. We approach Crystal City. Stop. At this point I notice the woman looking up with the classic oh I missed my station expression on her face. She half stands, then sits back down, pulling out the book to read again.

She reads on, and we travel past Braddock Road, King Street, and Van Dorn Street easily 30 minutes past what must have been her original stop to the end of the line. She closes the book, finger firmly marking her place, exits out of my train and then renters the one waiting on the other side of the tracks to take her back to her destination.

As I move up the escalator I can see that she is lost to the outside world again, engrossed in whatever is written between the hard green covers.

It was the Summer of 2000, and the book was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

I want to say that I was drawn to the series because of the cover because even then you could see it in bookstores, coffee shops, and on the Metro. But I wasn’t. I was drawn to the texts ability to draw in the mind, and clearly the imagination.

But it was the cover that told me what to read.

Now, eleven years (ELEVEN!) later I spent the weekend watching the final chapter of the Harry Potter saga on the big screen. Nothing is more exhilarating than Midnight Madness for a movie of a book that changed how you look at fantasy and storytelling. Feeling slightly otherworldly, you find yourself playing Harry Potter twenty questions for two hours as a stream of kids roll by dressed up as the Hogwarts Express in a conga line. In my head I was thinking that this must be how those moviegoers felt when they sat for the first Star Wars movie in 1977—the feeling of wonder and surprise that a story of dragons, and quests, heroes and heroines opens your hearts and makes your imagination travel to new heights.

But while the on screen spectacle was arresting, it was another reminder of just how strong of an impression a book can make. I testify that this series made me smile and at times, cry. There were tears when Deathly Hallows book first came out, and again as the revelation that we had all misjudged a certain potions master played out across the screen. While this series grew up with its primary audience, I can say that it saw me through my twenties–through college, grad school, job uncertainty—essentially the start of my adulthood. And so while I was never in the same age range as the trio of friends, I recognize the impact the story had on my love of storytelling and writing.

My Harry Potter Books, along with a few other of my favorite titles. PS: If you haven't read Little Dorrit I highly recommend it.

As for my physical copies of the books? I really did end up choosing them based on their covers. Even though I was curious after that initial metro ride, it wasn’t until a trip to India that I started collecting my personal copies. Each book has its own story: 1, 2, 3 & 4 I got in Mumbai during a family vacation (though at the time 1-3 were in paperback, my mom got me the hardcovers after someone donated them to her library). Book 5 (Order of the Phoenix) I bought in the States, until a fortuitous trip to visit a friend revealed that this was the only book where she had the British version, so we made a switch. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince made it to my shelves after a midnight purchase in 2005, another midnight trek to a bookstore in the London suburb of North Harrow.

For Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I was in New York City, moving my sister into her first apartment. I stood in line, by myself, at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, until someone told us (well past midnight) that there was another store a half a block away with no line and plenty of copies. I’ve never read a book faster in my life. (Once again playing switcheroo helped me complete my matching set as a friend visiting abroad made an exchange when she returned to the states.)

After seeing the movie this weekend, I wanted to write a piece in farewell. However, I realized I’m not quite ready to say goodbye, and probably never will be. Many articles this week have listed favorite parts, characters, objects—and have posited clever praises on Rowling’s femininity (or lack there of). Instead I thought I would leave you with a passage in the book that made me think—one that speaks to the power of imagination, but also of knowing your own self—and trusting what is in your own heart.

Cupcakes from Midnight Madness. Three for each of the Hogwarts Houses. Recipe for Cake and Buttercream from Real Simple Magazine (Click to view).

From Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (pp579)

“Tell me one last thing,’ said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

The Sorting Hat Says Goodbye

When we first met he was very young
As, of course, were we
But as we grew, he found his place
To fight Voldemort and be Free

In our minds the wonder sparked
And imagination soared
Whimsical and fantastical
We were never bored

And then the end in published form
Came to say goodbye
But we all knew we’d still have
On the movies to rely

Soon there will be no more Harry Potter
To look forward to in time
No Hallows, Horcruxes, or Hogwarts
And I’ll have nothing left to rhyme

So join me on the 15 of July
As the stroke of midnight chimes
And we’ll say fare-the-well to the wizarding world
With a flick of our wands, our hearts and our minds

—P. Chhaya 6/21/2011

Note: More on The Power of the Cover will follow next week.

When In the Course of Human Events

Another Fourth of July has passed. Gone are the sparkling fireworks while the BBQ’s-hallmarks of summer–have been consumed by the hazy heat of the morning after. My Fourth began with a cup of tea with my parents–while Regis and Kelly asked America about the first seven words of the Declaration of Independence.  Heavy stuff  is what they said when the words (the title of this post) were read out loud, and found myself (spurred on by the patriotic Facebook status messages filled with uncommon quotations) digging out my pocket sized Constitution (which also had the text of the Declaration) so that I could think about the complexity of this 235th birthday of the United States of America.

On this day I honored not merely the ideal of America, or the date in which a document (a piece of our civic scripture–to borrow from Pauline Maier) was signed. Rather I chose to recognize the struggle-the one that re-examined our self evident thruths. The struggle that redefined “men” to include race and gender, and molded the meaning of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Ironically, my Fourth of July did no include a BBQ or Fireworks. Instead, I went to see “Midnight in Paris”, a film which turned out to be a perfect backdrop for reflection on Independence Day.  In short, the film follows a Hollywood script writer turned aspiring novelist as he is magically transported to 1920s Paris. It is during these “suspension of reality” moments where Gil encounters idols of film, literature, art and culture. As a Woody Allen film, the movie mocks pretentiousness, while also being slightly pretentious–and also in a less than subtle fashion drives full force into the commentary on nostalgia (even to the extent that Gil’s novel is set in a nostalgia shop). The man is caught between his fiance and her friends who don’t understand the magic of Paris, and a slow realization that his forays into the past are really ventures into fantasy.  This mystical Paris in the 20’s pulls those who reminisce away from the demands (or as one character states the “dullness”) of the present and leaves them disconnected–unable to see the realities of the time that they fill with the veneer of romance. As one of my fellow movie viewers pointed out, the past became a way for the writer to feel affirmation and confidence rather than genuinely earning it through his actual actions.

At the same time that Gil is realizing the imperfectness of remaining in the past, he is also acknowledging the beauty of the urban. His walks through the city provided him with vision–and make him, in his mind, a better writer. For  Gil the lure of Paris is in its character both in its modern and historical sense–though even then he uses rain as a way of hiding reality (for Paris is at its most beautiful when it is raining).  It is the city–the power of place–that brings inspiration.

Fourth of July Fireworks (NYC 2011, Thermal view) Taken by T. Chhaya

I thought this was a great way to think about America on it’s birthday. That though the day is filled with nostalgia–summer days with a slightly romantic sheen, our Founding Fathers fighting for our rights against a tyrannical king–we all recognize the reality of the day–the sacrifice and yes, the struggle to get where we are. That the power of our place– our country –is not just in the sites we like to visit, but also in our people who make history with every vote, every breath, and every step.

O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave. 

O’er the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave. 

A is For Arizona

I can’t believe that April is nearly at an end.  In a month that saw prep work for THE BIG EVENT in less than three weeks, and the NCPH conference in Pensacola I also had a quick, mini-vacation in Scottsdale, Arizona.  While we spent a good amount of time by the pool enjoying the warmth (it was still very chilly in DC, something that is no longer the case) there was an opportunity for some good eats, hiking, and a moment to take in a historic house tour.

I’ll be honest and say that this trip had an agenda–it was my sisters bachelorette party–and the goal was relax, relax, relax. So while we did take a lovely hike up Camelback mountain (you can see me in the slideshow sporting my PreservationNation.org shirt) the rest of the time pretty much just involved….

Food

Mohitos!

While in Scottsdale we ate at a lot of places. I did want to take a second to mention that as great as the food at Deseo was , the private mixology class where we learned how to make three different types of mohitos was fascinating–historically speaking of course. The instructor gave us a brief history of the drink and explained the different variations of rum and how they are developed. From some of the courses I took on foodways I remember thinking about the different regions of the world that make the liquor and how the histories of those nations were affected and transformed by production.  Specifically the history of sugar and the slave trade. If you want a really good book about the subject check out Sydney Mintz’s work Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.

Food at Deseo

We also ate at…

Old Town Tortilla Factory

In addition to perfect weather, this restaurant had amazing southwestern/Mexican cuisine.  Built from a 75 year old Adobe, diners at the Old Town Tortilla Factory sit in the open air.  I would recommend getting the green enchiladas.

Hotel Valley Ho–Cafe Zu Zu

French Toast at Cafe Zu Zu

Brunch at Cafe Zu Zu was the perfect way to start our leisure filled Saturday. It also gave me an excuse to visit a very chic modernist hotel (part of the Historic Hotels of America collection). With awesome chandeliers, and a pretty trendy lobby–I thoroughly enjoyed my french toast.  If you love mid-century modernist hotels I recommend visiting the Valley Ho–or just read about its past.


Olive and Ivy

Our first stop when we landed was getting some food at Olive and Ivy. Despite it being the hottest day of the year (so far) in the area, we decided to sit outside. While we tried a lot of different food–the Sweet Corn and Tomato Flatbread was (to me at least) the star of the meal.

And Now for the History: Taliesin West

View from the front of Taliesin West

Earlier this week I posted this post over at PreservationNation about the perfect house tour. It stemmed from my general dissatisfaction of a tour I had received at Taliesin West. I wanted to elaborate on this a little. For me the typical house tour is symbolic of a time when great men dominated our history lessons. So while many tours work very hard to look “downstairs” or interpret slave quarters occasionally you get to a tour that hasn’t quite made the leap.

Now of course, the difference with Taliesin West is its connection to Frank Lloyd Wright and his influence on American architecture–but the same principals apply. Instead of trying so hard to convince the captive audience of his greatness, the tour may have been better if his concepts and ideas were relayed narratively, using the house and the school to illustrate the points.  Instead, as an audience member, the conversation felt a little condescending. Rather than talk about the school in a way that talked curriculum and how it uses Wright”s vision to train new architects, we got discussions of accreditation and how many students are accepted. It felt, at times, much like an advertisement for applicants rather than a  story of Wright’s legacy–continuing on beyond his lifetime.  I am willing to concede, as I mention in the post above, that the temperature may have contributed to the ineffectiveness of our guide–or that it was a particular off day–but when you feel like the hour long tour could have been concluded in half the time, there is a problem.

Detail of a statue at Taliesin West

The tour aside, if you do have a  chance to visit this masterpiece do so. Every angle produces a new vision — of sky, water, stone against Arizona’s natural landscape. A is for Arizona–which means it was absolutely amazing.

Note: Speaking of historic moments. While we were in AZ, some of the party attendees stayed up all night to watch the final cricket match of the cricket world cup between India and Sri Lanka. At this moment the Indian team was playing against a team that had dominated the series, while they had fought tooth and nail to make it to the end. It was a team that had not made the finals since the year I was born (1982). While very much an important part of Indian culture, I found myself unexpectedly caught up in witnessing the exciting win–and felt like I was a part of a nationwide moment of joy. So I say Bravo India!

View the full album of pictures.