This month the massive crowds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway appear to confirm its confident claim to being the “motor racing capital of the world.” Racing began on the oval in 1909 and the 500-mile race first ran two years later, with the 99th running of the 500-mile race approaching on Memorial Day weekend. The speedway is a National Historic Landmark, and its fascinating social history reaches well beyond the obsessive statistics and biographical minutia that motorheads have compulsively detailed for a century. The IMS dominates American racing mythology and is as much a pilgrimage destination as a race track. Like so many shrines it invokes a host of American traditions that are perhaps more firmly rooted in our imagination and hagiography than especially concrete history.
The imagination of the speedway’s history has recently begun to contemplate historical racial inequalities in sports. This year the 500 Festival parade before the race will be marshalled by the 1955 state high school basketball champions from Indianapolis’ segregated Crispus Attucks High School. The Attucks champions’ place in the pre-race parade celebrates Indiana’s two most adored sports, basketball and racing, but of course the implications of sport and the color line extend beyond the hardwood and the speedway. No 20th-century Indiana institution escaped anti-Black racism, and the speedway and the Indianapolis 500 was long a segregated space and has included very few people of color on the track or in the pits. The prominence of the Attucks players makes a modest but potentially important concession of racism in sports, though the concrete social effects of such discussions remain to be evaluated. Read the rest of this entry
In 1955 Crispus Attucks High School won the Indiana high school basketball crown in one of the state’s most fabled sporting moments. In basketball-mad Indiana there are many reasons to celebrate the 1955 Tigers’ victory: fronted by hardwood legend Oscar Robertson, the Tigers are venerated for their march through the ranks of Indiana high school basketball teams in 1955 and their domination of the state’s best teams throughout the 1950’s (Attucks also took crowns in 1956 and 1959 and had a near-miss in 1951).
Garage-mounted basketball hoops, stanchions rolled out onto suburban dead-ends, and scattered courts remain one of the most commonplace features of the Indianapolis landscape, where the game is a staple of everyday life. An astounding range of people have embraced the Attucks basketball championship, which is often spun as racism’s conquest at the hands of civility and fairness—qualities that are often somewhat idealistically projected onto basketball. Sport looms in this narrative as one of the rare activities White and Black Hoosiers shared in the 1950’s, forging some measure of understanding if not equality beyond the hardwood. This picture of Cold War segregated basketball risks over-stating the transformations worked by basketball or mistaking good intentions for structural changes. Nevertheless, basketball and sport did indeed provide promising glimpses into the possibilities of a life outside anti-Black racism (Richard Pierce’s 2000 study of the 1951 Attucks championship provides a compelling analysis of the intersection of the post-war color line and basketball). Read the rest of this entry
In a 1936 study of life in segregated rural Georgia, Arthur Franklin Raper captured the anxiety posed by the African-American car and the political implications of African-American travel. Raper saw the roads as spaces in which White privilege was being undermined if not contested, noting that “only on automobiles on public roads do landlords and tenants and white people and Negroes of the Black Belt meet on the basis of equality. … [T]he tenant can go where he pleases on the public road, and after he gets twenty or thirty minutes from home he travels incognito and is subject to his own wishes.”
The story of segregation is often told in spaces that hosted civil rights confrontations: lunch counters, bus stations, and school steps are concrete spots where the denial of privilege was contested. Nevertheless, all public space was regulated, and Black movement inspired particularly neurotic fears. One White farmer interviewed by Arthur Raper “advocated that the cars be taken from the Negroes or that the county maintain two systems of roads, one for the whites and one for the Negroes!” Movement evoked freedom, independence, and agency outside White surveillance, so it inspired anxiety over more than a century: an uneasiness that African Americans were operating outside White control was shared by antebellum ideologues viewing the Underground Railroad, Northern cities witnessing the Great Migration, and Georgia farmers watching African-American cars on the public roadway. Read the rest of this entry
In June, 1926 the Indianapolis Recorder heralded the opening of Fox Lake, “the long looked for Indiana lake resort for colored people.” Two weeks later the paper ran a spectacular advertisement for a Fourth of July event at Idlewild of Indiana, a segregated vacation getaway south of Indianapolis “promoted by the `race’ for the `race.’” In many ways nothing especially dramatic distinguishes such African-American vacation spots from the legion of forest cabins, beaches, and leisure destinations that dotted America. The 20th-century rural Midwest was carpeted by African-American vacation spots that mirrored segregated leisure spaces that began to emerge throughout the country around the turn of the century. Yet in the midst of segregation places like Fox Lake incubated an African American Dream that was perhaps distinguished by a simultaneous embrace of “middle class” values and a rejection of their presumed White exclusivity. Places like Fox Lake certainly provided refuge from racism, but they also incubated class respectability, fed economic and social ambitions, and fanned genuine politicization.
Widespread middle-class ambitions did not grant mass access to inter-war African-American resorts. Idlewild of Michigan (which had no relationship to the Idlewild of Indiana resort) was the most prominent African-American resort in the Midwest, and when the Indianapolis Recorder first referred to it in March, 1916 the African-American newspaper celebrated that “beautiful Idlewild is to be an exclusive, high-class colored summer resort.” Idlewild ads emphasized that the resort “has been thoroughly investigated by a number of prominent business people and professional people of the race.” A 1919 promotional pamphlet for Idlewild expressly targeted “the thinking, progressive, active class of people, who are leading spirits of their communities.”
The Black elite enlisted to boost their cause included Madam C.J. Walker, who owned property at Idlewild. Once control of Idlewild was turned over to African Americans in 1921, W.E.B. Du Bois waxed poetic about the retreat in The Crisis: “For sheer physical beauty … it is the beautifulest stretch I have seen for twenty years; and to that add fellowship—sweet, strong women and keen-witted men from Canada and Texas, California and New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois—all sons and great-grandchildren of Ethiopia, all with the wide leisure of rest and play—can you imagine a more marvelous thing than Idlewild?” Read the rest of this entry
One of the most recent volleys in a long-running moral critique of consumption, pollution, and imperialism comes from Mt. Everest, where uneasy scholars and activists have long decried the detritus left on the world’s tallest peak. In 1963 National Geographic photographer Barry Bishop was part of the first American team to scale Everest, and he described the mountain as “the world’s highest junk yard.” Indeed, climbers ascending the mountain have discarded oxygen tanks, tattered tents, food containers, and a helicopter, and dead climbers have been left on the peak since George Mallory and Andrew Irvine died in an ascent attempt in 1924. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay scaled the mountain for the first time in 1953, and Hillary later said “I must admit, when we went to Everest in 1953, we heaved our rubbish around with the best of them. That was nearly forty years ago and in those days hardly anyone had even heard of conservation.” When the New York Times examined the massive growth of tourism to Nepal in 1978, Hillary lamented that the Everest region “is now an ecological slum. Tins and trash clutter up the paths and campsites. … The traditional culture is being crushed by the insidious economic machine.”
Last week the head of Nepal’s mountaineering association spearheaded the charge to address the most repulsive of this trash when he took aim on “large amounts of feces and urine” left on the world’s tallest mountain. The Washington Post amplified the rhetoric over human waste on the peak when it repeated Grayson Schaffer’s 2013 description of Everest as a “fecal time bomb,” quite possibly the most colorful description ever provided for a potential ecological disaster. By various counts, over 5000 climbers have relieved themselves on Everest and left “pyramids of human excrement.” In 2012 a Washington Post column by Schaffer had sounded the same jarring image of the Everest base camp outhouses “continuously overflowing with waste.” Last year Outside’s Lauren Steele reported on climbers’ longstanding practice of defecating into glacier crevasses, and with mountain warming “the glacier—and the waste entombed within it—is slowly making its way back toward Base Camp,” where climbers drink the melt water. Read the rest of this entry
Detroit’s 8 Mile Road is perhaps today best known as the thoroughfare bordering the neighborhood where Marshall Mathers grew up. Eminem’s 2002 film 8 Mile told his story of life adjoining the roadway that has often loomed as the line separating White and Black Detroit. The neighborhood’s residents and decline have routinely been reduced to shallow clichés, like USA Today’s 2002 conclusion that “8 Mile Road remains what it was three decades ago: a catch basin for the city’s human flotsam”; in 2006 The Guardian called 8 Mile Road “America’s most notorious highway, the road that divides black from white.” Such rhetoric provides little insight into Detroit, but it does underscore the emotion if not irrationality that shapes how we imagine landscapes along and across color lines. Many of these landscapes today are in ruins or are prosaic declining spaces like stretches of 8 Mile Road, so they are easy to ignore or reduce to shallow analyses. Nevertheless, viewed simply as dehistoricized ruins these places risk being divorced from a legion of racist inequalities that have shaped the contemporary American city. Read the rest of this entry
On April 14, 1865 Abraham Lincoln went to the theatre for the evening, a night that would end in his murder and death the following morning. Lincoln’s pockets contained a handful of prosaic and idiosyncratic things: two pairs of eye glasses, a lens polisher, a pocket knife, a watch fob, a handkerchief, and a brown leather wallet containing a Confederate banknote and nine newspaper clippings. The things in Lincoln’s pockets were perhaps a chance assemblage, like the $62.00 and a plane ticket in Kurt Cobain’s pocket when he died in April, 1994. Those scatters of things in Lincoln and Cobain’s pockets occupied perhaps the most intimate of all clothing spaces that we generally reserve for our most essential and meaningful things. We tend to see pockets as harboring a special class of prosaic yet consequential things even as the pockets themselves claim a distinctively intimate but unexamined status.
Few spaces could be more familiar yet more unremarked upon than pockets. Clothing pockets are a presence of sorts, but like edges of an excavation unit their material definition may be made by their tangible boundaries and the things in them rather than the vacuum that is perhaps the actual pocket. Pockets are distinctively intimate since they are stitched into our public garments yet conceal our bodies, and they hold a narrow range of small things like coins, keys, wallets, phones, makeup, lighters, and similar objects that for various reasons are held close to our bodies and accessible to our hands. There are some idiosyncratic but illuminating insights into privacy, place, and self that can be made based on an “excavation” of pockets and the cargo that finds refuge in them. Read the rest of this entry
While most of our cats are curled up on the couch, at least a handful of them appear to be lounging in stylish, creative, and even well-designed furnishings that would put many couches to shame. This new wave of cat furnishings goes beyond the commonplace cat tower or scratch pad covered in non-descript carpet fragments that bored your cat within an hour. Even the most indifferent cat would be curious about a host of astounding feline furnishings with massive turning wheels, sky towers, cat beds, toilet towers, neo-futurist scratching pads, cat tunnel sofas, and wonderful pieces of cat-climbing sculpture. For those of us concerned about design, LazyBonezz’ Metropolitan pet bunk bed (in ebony or fire red) is typical of the new goods that will accommodate your pampered cat (or trim dog) in a sleek wood and stainless steel bunk bed accessed by skid-resistant steps and outfitted with microfiber cushions. A precious few cats are even more fortunate to have the run of houses designed to turn people spaces into three-dimensional volumes accessible to cats via ceiling-suspended walkways and climbing walls.
It would be easy to dismiss cat design and high-style cat products simply as misplaced affluence, but focusing purely on pet spending ignores the ways our pets profoundly shape our own household materiality. The fascinating Hauspanther web page inventories many of these high-style cat consumer goods, arguing that “good design can enhance the way we live with cats, improving our lives and the lives of our beloved feline companions. By paying attention to the design of objects and environments, we can create living spaces that accommodate the natural instincts of cats – keeping them happy, healthy and well behaved – without compromising our own sense of style and comfort.” Read the rest of this entry
Perhaps all scholarship inevitably hazards descending into stale convention or becoming an insular academic pursuit. One of the most novel recent movements to unsettle archaeological conventions is “punk archaeology,” which is perhaps most clearly illustrated in William Caraher, Kostis Kourelis, and Andrew Reinhard’s edited 2014 collection Punk Archaeology. A fascinating Society for Historical Archaeology session last week examined punk archaeology, especially the public dimensions that Lorna Richardson has most closely examined. Punk archaeologists are leery of being narrowly defined, but a punk research perspective typically takes aim on “mainstream” archaeology: that is, in archaeology and many other disciplines the notion of punk seeks to transform scholarship that is normative, predictable, easily ignored, apolitical, emotionless, overly academic, or simply dull. Punk archaeology embraces a critical and compelling assault on unquestioned scholarly traditions and the academy, and it drew a roomful of people at the SHA conference and has received plenty of press coverage. Nevertheless, it may deliver death rites to a stereotyped mainstream and academy that have already disappeared or never existed in the first place.
Simply labeling any scholarship punk is a bit of a rhetorical maneuver, a point made by Zack Furniss’ Punkademics and also underscored in fandom scholarship that has contemplated the relationship between fans and academics since the 1980’s (cf. Matt Hills’ “fan-as-intellectual,” Henry Jenkins’ “Confessions of an Aca-Fan” blog, and Tanya Cochran’s study of “scholar-fandom”). A punk archaeology risks posing a clumsy contrast between, on the one hand, the notion of punk as spontaneous, experiential, anti-intellectual, and anarchic and, on the other hand, the stereotype of academic archaeologists as insular and unimaginative squares committed to jargon and tweed jackets. The line between academics and everyday people has long been much more complicated and frequently violated than we are often willing to acknowledge; there certainly are some academics committed to deep-seated scholarly traditions and clueless about The Simpsons, but there is little evidence that most academics are indifferent to everyday life and popular culture or that popular artists are not themselves intellectuals. Read the rest of this entry
Archaeologists are routinely flummoxed by the idiosyncratic dimensions of material things; we seem unable in most instances to capture the personal histories and inchoate emotions invested in apparently prosaic things. Nearly all of us have random objects or souvenirs from childhood trips, mundane things associated with life events, or objects passed down to us, and when we are not present to tell those stories they are impossible to capture archaeologically. A novel kickstarter project proposes to ensure these individual and idiosyncratic meanings remain literally attached to things. Bemoir proposes to capture oral histories and other data sources about an object’s history and record them via near field technology. For instance, your grandfather could relate the tale of a well-loved teddy bear, you could include pictures of him with it, and you could add a background history on the bear itself; similarly, you could give somebody a piece of art, attach an interview with the artist, and include a story about the gift-giving occasion that you share via Bemoir’s web page and app.
On the one hand, the appeal of Bemoir is its capacity to relate utterly idiosyncratic histories told in the vehicle of everyday things and oral memory. The archaeological record and material world are certainly populated by myriad things with such histories that we know in only cursory ways (e.g., “this was my mom’s watch”), or they are lodged only in our own minds or simply lost over time. For instance, I hand-write nearly everything like this blog post in journals before transferring the text to digital form. That perhaps harbors some philosophical insight into the process of writing (compare Tim Ingold’s defense of hand writing), and I like the literal sensation of a pen nib on paper and the visual dimension of seeing and rearranging text. However, in large part I do so because I have a wonderful Waterman fountain pen. In pure functional terms, the pen is easy enough to describe in its physical composition and decorative style, and any modestly skilled archaeologist would deduce its age and original price and assess the symbolism of the Waterman firm and hand-writing in the 21st century. Such analysis is the nuts-and-bolts of archaeology, but such descriptive details would rarely appear in the oral histories of things that Bemoir aspires to produce. Read the rest of this entry