Last Friday, I pedaled my butt to 6500 N. Clark Street to visit the Gerber/Hart Library, Chicago’s premier LGBTQ research space. At first I wondered if I was at the right building, as construction equipment and workers occupied the ground level, but the second floor was attractive and very open for business. An exhibit on LGBT music and a community bulletin board/table, offering free materials such as The Windy City Times, greeted me before I even entered the library. Once inside, I received an enthusiastic welcome from the staff member who offered a tour of the library, exhibits, and even the archives and special collections. The space was bright and inviting, equally embracing its academic mission and community-development role.
The following review evaluates the latest exhibition on display at the Newberry Library. It is free and open to the public from 8:15 am – 7:30 pm on Tuesdays through Thursdays, and from 8:15 am – 5:00 pm on Fridays through Mondays.
Chicago-area scholars are most assuredly acquainted with the diverse array of historical resources available at the Newberry Library. However, what would happen if pieces from their acclaimed collections found a way off the shelves and into a gallery space? The answer can be found in a new exhibition called “Stagestruck City.”
According to the first didactic panel visitors encounter upon entering the exhibit, the show’s story is about the venerable Goodman Theatre, Chicago’s oldest center for performing arts. It aims to explore “the theatre’s founding within the context of a remarkable heritage of live performance and popular amusement in the city.” This mention of “context” is critical for the exhibition as a whole, as one of its greatest strengths is delving into the intricacies of the Goodman’s founding while not overwhelming the audience with details about just one location. Indeed, the exhibition begins by examining theatres that reigned over the Second City’s entertainment industry decades before the Goodman was even conceived.
The first segment of gallery space succeeds in drawing in the visitor. The vibrant posters from places like the Adelphi Theatre and Col. Wood’s Museum (left) are mesmerizing examples of ephemera, and scanning through them could make readers feel like they themselves are late-nineteenth century theater buffs. Before 1871, contemporary plays could amusingly share the stage with more carnivalesque attractions such as the world’s largest lion! Everything changed, though, with the Great Chicago Fire. The conflagration consumed Chicago’s entertainment venues, providing an opportunity for more grandiose theatrical arenas to rise in their wake.
The following review evaluates the newest exhibit at the Edgewater Historical Society, located at 5358 N. Ashland Avenue in Chicago. The museum is open to the public from 1-4pm on Saturdays and Sundays.
Housed in a decommissioned fire station turned historical society, “Motoring Through Edgewater” occupies most of the building’s first floor and is bordered by smaller, locally-oriented exhibits. The historical society brims with a strong sense of local pride and history, and “Motoring Through Edgewater” reflects that energy. At its best, the exhibit creatively uses archival materials to connect local history to broader stories of historical and contemporary significance. Although missing rich opportunities to utilize existing scholarship on gender and automobile culture, the exhibit nevertheless epitomizes the value of local history to foster enthusiasm about a community’s past.
The introductory panel represents the strength of the exhibit by connecting a national obsession with automobiles and automobile races to the emergence of Edgewater’s Northside Motor Row. Flanked by a mannequin dressed in the attire of an early woman driver, a chart showing the increase of automobiles in Chicago, and a colorful Oldsmobile advertisement, the panel provides an aesthetically exciting opening to the exhibit. The advertisement contains the first of several references to Edgewater Beach Hotel, a landmark of local pride important enough to warrant its own exhibit in the entrance of the historical society.
Then, a bold, colorful Sanborn Map of Edgewater’s Motor Row (Broadway Avenue) dominates the southern wall. Historical photographs, historical advertisements, and contemporary photographs surround the map, illustrating the changing urban landscape of Motor Row. The historical photographs demonstrate change over time, while the advertisements creatively fill in the gaps where no historical photographs remain of past buildings. The panel also introduces several founders of notable cab companies who started their business on Motor Row. Contemporary photographs display evidence of the past that remains along Broadway Avenue and the labels occasionally reference continuing preservation efforts. This place-based panel jumps around chronologically, reproducing the effect of a contemporary city street with both an invisible and visible past.
The rest of the exhibit is arranged thematically, with section titles like “Off to the Races,” “See You at the Auto Salon,” “Women on the Road,” and “Edgewater on the Road.” Adjacent panels on “The Parking Nuisance” and “License and Registration!” emerge as one of the strongest sections. It connects artifacts from Edgewater to early city policies regarding parking and registration, while also referencing contemporary life in Chicago. A collection of license plates from each decade of the twentieth century also visually demonstrates change over time.
I agree with much of what my colleague Devin Hunter has written, but am still struggling with my reactions to Selma. Something about it just didn’t entirely connect with me — which was unexpected. Reflecting back on my own discussions of the Movement in the classroom, I realized, Martin Luther King Jr. is far from my central focus. Although I do find it quite valuable to discuss his philosophy of non-violent resistance and the ways in which his tactics were implemented on the ground. Selma does some of this work as well, in fact it strikes a lot of the right chords, but still seems somewhat out of key — a bit too much swelling music here — too many contrived slow-motion shots there. But my main gripe isn’t about aesthetics. Much like the mainstream narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, the movie is just too focused on Dr. King.
This may strike many as odd, because King is not a fixture on the silver screen. Perhaps thought of as a sacred cow, a man so mythologized in American culture as to appear daunting to directors, King, like Abraham Lincoln, has rarely received the full Hollywood treatment. And to her credit, like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), director Eva DuVernay’s film values depth over breadth and avoids some of the most problematic conventions of the biopic genre. Both focus, in procedural fashion, on a single historical event (albeit wrapped up with a series of others) in order to provide a window into the private as well as public lives of their respective central characters. Though even within these confines the thick veneer of hagiography associated with these figures presents enormous challenges for the filmmaker.
I was lucky enough to catch a pre-wide release showing of Selma earlier this week, when colleague Anthony Di Lorenzo and I braved Arctic weather to trudge to the multiplex. Overall, with a few caveats, I found the movie an effective piece of history that should have a positive impact on the public memory of the Black Freedom Struggle. I have quite a few thoughts about the film—many half-formed—but here I’ll just stick to a few of the themes that struck me most:
- The LBJ Depiction: fast and loose with many historical ‘facts,’ but the ends justify the means.
- Keeping the Black in the Black Freedom Struggle: the ‘white savior’ theme is unavoidable—but challenged; the historians’ age-old dilemma between power and agency is here—but maybe only by accident.
- Intra-movement Tensions: Valiant focus made possible by the above point, but SNCC is an unfortunate and ill-formed prop; consensus carries the day.
- A Cast of Thousands vs. the Biopic: ‘Whoa it’s awesome that you have James Orange and Bayard Rustin in there.’/’Why aren’t you telling me more about Orange and Rustin?!’
(Click the link above to skip the commentary and watch the debate)
Since I finished my summer independent study course last week, you will finally stop seeing book reviews on “The Black Atlantic” posted on this blog. For those of you that read some of those reviews, thank you for giving me an audience. Now, I have decided to followup my weekly tradition by posting a video. My favorite historical video.
Recently, I have been struggling to deal with, to talk about, and to understand the Israeli/Palestinian crisis in the Middle East. I have felt a lot of pain and a lot of anger. Not only at the conflict, but at my seeming inability to have any recourse to have my voice heard. I have tried to work my way through some discussions on Facebook about this topic, but they always seem to end in gridlocked, polarized, and intractable monologues. I find myself very eager to assert my opinion in the beginning (backed by righteous self-affirmation), but after the arguing continues, I become weary, and I cannot find the energy to keep up.
This week, I was involved in one particularly exciting back-and-forth about the crisis in the Middle East. When I became weary of the debate, I logged off Facebook and I turned to YouTube. I decided to revisit my favorite lecture (as I often do when my frustration with the world mounts). While this lecture has nothing to do with the Israeli/Palestinian crisis directly, it touches on some very basic and shared issues of human co-existence. It is this lecture that I want to share with you today. As you will see, I have posted a link to it below.
LAURENT DUBOIS. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, York: The Dial Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 357. $17.95.
Avengers of the New World is the first book written by Laurent Dubois, the historian, anthropologist, and literary scholar of France, the French Atlantic, and the Caribbean. Dubois wrote Avengers as a new history of the Haitian revolution (1791-1804), updating the anticolonial work of the Caribbean scholar C.L.R. James with Atlantic and African scholarship and social and cultural methodologies. Whereas James tended to “essentialize the differences” between groups within San Domingo, and focus on defending the actions of black revolutionaries and condemning those of planters from within a racialized discourse, Dubois is interested in creating an understanding of the revolution’s wider context within the “Age of Revolutions.” Although his book lacks the passion, verve, and spontaneous philosophical insight that characterized The Black Jacobins, it succeeds at drawing a more holistic portrait of the transatlantic republican forces that contributed not only to the “crucial moment” of the Haitian revolution, but to “the overall destruction of slavery in the Americas,” and to our ongoing battle for global democracy and human rights.
CYRIL LIONEL ROBERT JAMES. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: The Dial Press, 1938. Pp. xi, 396. $3.75.
The Black Jacobins is the seventh and most famous work written by C.L.R. James, the late Afro-Trinidadian historian, journalist, playwright, professor, social theorist, and essayist. It is a vivid and nuanced historical narrative of the San Domingo Revolution, popularly known as “the only successful slave revolt in history,” and its “courageous leader,” Toussaint L’Ouverture, from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the declaration of independence for Haiti in 1804. Written in anticipation of widespread African decolonization, with sincere Marxist-socialist leanings and a defining sense of solidarity for oppressed peoples, The Black Jacobins is widely hailed as a classic critique of imperialist and colonialist historiography. James immerses himself in the complex transatlantic drama of the protracted San Domingo Revolution, all while keeping his pen on the pulse of the longue durée; as he makes clear with poignant references to Abraham Lincoln, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and, in the amended edition, figures like José Martí, Fidel Castro, and Patrice Lumumba, the tumultuous plight of Haitian Independence was not an isolated historical event. Rather, it was one of the most dramatic, edifying, and formative chapters in an enduring struggle for global liberation.