On Boats and Containment

I have been trying to write this post for a while now, but only recently did Professor McCoy provide me with the lens to critically think about what I am attempting to discuss in this post- containment.

I grew up on boats, yet I am terribly afraid of drowning. Starting at age four, my father and I went on canoe camping trips every year in the Adirondacks. I started sailing with him at age six, and at age ten, I learned to sail on my own. My family vacations always include water, usually going to the Thousand Islands or the Adirondacks and bringing a few of our eleven and a half boats (my dad is currently building one) with us. To add insult to injury, I was a competitive swimmer in high school. What I am trying to say is that I have absolutely no reason to be afraid of drowning. Continue reading “On Boats and Containment”

Big Freedia and Queer Erasure

When Dr. DeFrantz guest lectured our class on Friday, I was ecstatic to learn more about dance. As a die-hard theater kid who was called “allergic to moving with any sense of purpose” by my high school theater teacher, I was excited to be included in a dancer’s environment in any capacity. Before the class started, I saw Dr. DeFrantz pull up Beyonce’s “Formation” video and I saw the room buzz with anticipation and speculation.

When Dr. DeFrantz brought up Big Freedia, I immediately recalled this article by Myles Johnson in which he ponders why Big Freedia’s voice is used so freely when her image is completely absent. Beyonce’s live performances of “Formation” usually begin with Freedia’s voice breaking the silence with “Bitch, I’m back by popular demand!” and/or “I did not come to play with you hoes!” More recently, Drake’s song “Nice For What” samples Freedia challenging the listener with “I wanna know who motherfucking representin’ in here tonight!” This video features admired women of Hollywood, like Rashida Jones, Letitia Wright, and Tracey Ellis Ross represented between cuts of Drake dancing and performing to the song. Instead of Freedia herself, the video features exclusively cisgender women.

“Formation” and “Nice For What” both mention New Orleans explicitly and use Big Freedia’s voice as an homage to their cultural influences, however, her body is not included in the visual representation of these allusions to her home city. While I don’t at all proclaim to pass judgment on these artists, I write here to elevate Johnson’s concerns that abstracting Big Freedia’s words from her personage and queer identity contributes to what he considers popular music “seemingly mak[ing] a phantom or ghost out of a living person.”

Just as Miley Cyrus is often mistakenly credited for elevating twerking as an art form, a fact that Freedia herself took issue with, now we must examine the consequences of obscuring queer contributions to mainstream art. I am confident that I am not the most appropriate or skilled person to take on this topic, but ignoring its pertinence feels like being complicit in Big Freedia’s erasure. Her face and name are largely unknown, but her words, when presented by cisgender performers, are met with ecstatic cheers by millions.

Freedia has spoken frequently about the balance between large platforms and proper credit.  “We’re steady moving forward to get the bounce culture even further out there and, as you can see, other artists are recognizing our music and our talent down here in New Orleans . . . I’ve worked tremendously hard to make things happen for New Orleans culture. I just want us to get the proper recognition and the proper credit that we deserve,” she said in an interview with Fader.  Hopefully, Big Freedia, who has worked for decades in the industry to improve public perception of twerking and bounce music, will get the recognition she deserves. I argue that “hopefully” starts with us and our duty to attribute credit as ethical consumers of New Orleanian culture. 

In Memory of the Cakewalk

During Dr. Defrantz’s discussion of dance, I took a concerted interest in the historical discussion of the quadrille and its parodic descendant, the cakewalk. The discussion of the two dances was one of cultural preservation through the performance of memory, and the ways in which this performance evolved over the past 150 years was a great point of interest. The idea that a dance was able to start as a parody of an upper class performance, but then attain enough cultural capital to become an accepted form of performance by the people who were originally lampooned by the dance.  It has me thinking about how memories and can evolve as they move further and further away, temporally, from their point of inception.

Roach qualifies such displays as tools which helped the slaves to “continue to assert their interdependent traditions” (63), but I feel that this also extends to the dances performed by the upper class people of New Orleans. As Dr. Defrantz said, these were dances which originated in the courts of the French upper class, and were then imported to America by French colonizers and kept alive by the Francophones and Francophiles of the colonies and eventual nation of America. In this regard, the performers of the dance were themselves asserting their interdependent traditions, so they were performing their memories just as much as the slaves they owned were.

This commonality problematizes the divisions that existed between the two classes of people, divisions which were enforced by society. With this division being purely immaterial and ethereal, this renders the separation nil, revealing the supposedly distinct groups as what Roach refers to as “imagined communities” (63).  Roach then purports that these communities are “organized by spirit-world memories” which then differentiate the community through their hallowed rites and rituals (63). Roach addresses these rites in the context of funerals, but I argue that dance is equally receptive to this lens of cultural analysis of New Orleans, as the dances preserve the culture’s memories in the same way that the funeral preserves those of the deceased.

It is this preservation of culture that I believe guided the progression of the cakewalk from obscure parody to a place in general culture. The cakewalk stems from the structures of the quadrille, and its artistic intent and meaning are informed by this cultural allusion. However, due to its place as a cultural article, the cakewalk also took on the ability to grow out of the shadow of its progenitor, which it did as its own mechanics, the over-exaggerated movements, the energy of those moves, and the rhythm of movements, evolved as more time passed. These evolutions in the dance’s mechanics allowed it to form a niche in the grand scheme of American culture. It was assimilated and stripped of its original meaning the course of broader acceptance in the same way that the name “Angola” was when the prison was named after the former slave plantation.

Memory of the original context of the cakewalk was cleansed by the passage of time, and this cleansing allowed it to be more accepted by the future descendants of those slaves and slaveowners. As with everything in America, the cakewalk found its place, because, in the words of Roach, “That’s the way it’s done” (63).

The “Before’s” and “After’s”

A major theme in Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One, along with just about every other piece of literature or cinema in a post-apocalyptic setting (zombies or otherwise) is the evaluation of how much the world can change with a single event. In Zone One, the survivors labelled the first day of the zombie outbreak as the “Last Night,” stating that “everyone knows where they were.” Mark Spitz is rational for assuming that the world will never return to “normalcy,” and intentionally tries to distance himself from who he was before the Last Night. However, he often finds himself reminiscing about the previous world, from remembering certain landmarks before they were ruined to imagining what certain zombies were doing before they turned. When he snaps back to reality, the distinct split between how things were and how things are now is always jarring.

A doctor in Zone One coined the term PASD, or “Post-Apocalypse Stress Disorder,” a condition in which the contemplation of this jarring shift causes serious health concerns with the survivors. One scene in the book has Mark Spitz confuse a doctor’s diagnosis of a recruit’s panic attack as his “past,” when he was, in reality, saying a shorthand for “PASD.” The context in this misheard proclamation actually makes sense: It was, after all, the recruit’s past that was causing him issues, an undoubtedly intentional wordplay by the hand of Whitehead. The characters in Zone One are, whether they want to be or not, obsessed with the memories of the world that no longer existed.

Some characters, such as Kaitlyn, cope with their PASD by hanging on tightly to trivialities from their past life, talking about things that could never conceivably be relevant in the new age. Her insistence of holding onto the past as such is a demonstration of people’s tendencies to create performances of memory. Despite how those elements of their pasts being gone, she desperately keeps them alive with reminders of the small things.

Whitehead’s depiction of the “before” world and “after” world in Zone One parallels reality in many ways: There are events in history that drastically change the outlooks of the average citizen. Most notably,  anyone who remembers the events of  9/11 would tell you how different pre-9/11 America was from post-9/11 America. In the seventeen years since then, however, while the memory still lingers, the world has for the most part returned to “normalcy.”

There are many other historical events that the same could be said of, where they mark the “before’s” and “after’s” of citizen attitudes: The 2016 Presidential Election, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the war in Vietnam, the World Wars,  the Civil War and American Revolution… the list goes on and on. The survivors of those events will always immediately proclaim that their event is the defining moment of human history, that the ultimate “before” and “after” starts right there. The truth is, as we all know, that they’re merely the markers of new chapters in the history books. After enough time, they become nothing more than footnotes.

Despite the scale of the Last Night in Zone One, it could be considered the same for that fictional world: Despite how drastically things change, “normalcy” always finds its way back eventually.  Perhaps Mark Spitz is wrong in his assumption to the contrary?

Thinking about care; remembering Salvador

I’ve been thinking a lot about the article we read on prison abolition– “Free Us All”— and the lessons about care embedded into it. I don’t think it is easy for many to associate radical politics with care, partially because of the connotations associated with the word “radical.” Yet, this is exactly what is happening in the feminist and female-led defense campaigns for incarcerated people in the United States, and in campaigns beyond our borders.

When Saidiya Hartman said that “care is the antidote for violence,” she put prison abolition into a feminist and humanist frame. And Hartman’s idea about care is at the core of our self-reflective assignment. So I think it is important that I start to think about what it means to use care as an antidote to violence.

Continue reading “Thinking about care; remembering Salvador”

Memory and the Futility of Containment on a Smaller Scale

In class we discussed how Zone One deals with containment and how it can often be futile. The one main example of containment and its futility that I saw in the novel connected with one of our course concepts, memory. Mark Spitz mentions how, in this post-apocalyptic landscape, it’s necessary to only worry about the immediate future, otherwise, you’re not going to survive. He tries to contain himself in the present moment as much as possible but memory makes this effort futile. Mark is continually dragged back into the past, seeing and, more importantly, remembering faces of people he had “known or loved” in the zombies, such as his past teacher, Ms. Alcott. Even when survival requires living in the moment, the past still upwells in the form of memory. No matter how hard Mark, or anyone else, tries to contain themselves in the present moment, past experiences force themselves into consciousness.

Continue reading “Memory and the Futility of Containment on a Smaller Scale”

Memory and Media

After Monday’s class discussion I found myself very entrenched in thinkING about the thread of conversation that several of my peers brought up regarding films and movies that had been altered after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Beth brought up how this directly ties into performances of memory and forgetting, and I wanted to explore this further as it really got me curious about the process of altering media after a communally disturbing or terrorizing event takes place. What we have read so far in Colson Whitehead’s novel, Zone One, centers, for the most part, around Mark Spitz’s experiences as a sweeper scouring for skels in the demolished ash and debris of post-plague lower Manhattan. Through this, Whitehead is evoking an eerily similar setting to that of post-9/11 New York City and consciously performs a remembering of this traumatic time. This is definitely quite contrasting to what I found when researching media that came about in the wake of 9/11. Continue reading “Memory and Media”

Monty Python and the Black Plague as a Model for the Zombie Apocalypse

When reading Zone One, the phrase “Bring out your dead.” really stuck out to me for some reason that at first I couldn’t place. Then, it hit me: it reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I have embedded the clip above, but essentially, the person collecting the bodies of those who died from the Black Death calls “bring out your dead!” Eventually, around a minute in, one person tries to drop off a “body” that isn’t dead and hilarity ensues. [Sidenote: if you’ve never seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail or the musical version Spamalot, please do.]

Besides the obvious parallel between a not-dead body and the skels of Zone One, Colson Whitehead is clearly referencing the body disposal practices from the Black Death era as performed in this skit, performing a memory of another plague and another time of need for the prevention of the spread of disease. Continue reading “Monty Python and the Black Plague as a Model for the Zombie Apocalypse”