Few artifacts associated with dark historical moments are more perversely fascinating than a pair of panties for sale in an Ohio antiques shop. The lace underwear embossed with the monogram “EB” were reputedly recovered in 1945 from Berchtesgaden, where they were said to grace Eva Braun. The provenience for the $7500 knickers is not clearly established, but the interest in the skivvies of Hitler’s mistress is a telling reflection of our deep-seated curiosity in the human dimensions of evil. The fascination with such a prosaic thing illuminates our desire to comprehend (if not explain) the most evil people by focusing on their banal humanity.
Few collectibles provoke more anxiety than Nazi artifacts, whose exchange is strictly regulated throughout most of the world. Many of the codes regulating Nazi memorabilia attempt to keep them from falling into the hands of contemporary neo-Nazis, but many observers simply see the profiteering on Nazi symbols as ghoulish if not immoral. Harry Grenville, whose parents died at Auschwitz, called a 2015 auction of wartime memorabilia “hugely offensive,” lamenting that “this auction house is set to make a tidy sum of money from the sale of items that are hugely offensive to a lot of people. It raises again the question about freedom of speech – you can’t force people to stop selling Holocaust memorabilia and making money from it but you can deplore it.” Grenville is not alone in his uneasiness that Nazi material things have become “collectibles” traded like any other other good. Nevertheless, this aversion to the trade in Nazi collectibles stands somewhat at odds with the pervasive presence of Nazis in popular culture, where Nazism and Hitler are nearly universally recognized stand-ins for evil. Read the rest of this entry
In February lifelong Star Wars and Liverpool Football Club fan Gordon Deacon died of cancer, and the 58-year-old’s funeral commemorated his passions. The Cardiff father of four was escorted to St. Margaret’s Church by a phalanx of stormtroopers who then oversaw his pallbearers, who were themselves clad in Liverpool jerseys. Deacon’s funeral was distinctive, but he is by no means alone embracing his fandom for his final earthly ritual. For instance, the widow of Pittsburgh Steelers fan James Henry Smith requested that he be placed in his favorite reclining chair as if “he just fell asleep watching the game,” covered by his beloved Steelers blanket and facing a television showing a Steelers game (with the television remote in his hand). When Doctor Who fan Seb Neale died his family and friends arranged a service at which Neale’s coffin was a TARDIS with a blue flashing light; the service program was a picture of Neale cosplaying as 10th Doctor David Tennant; music from the show was played; and instead of scriptural verses “the funeral consisted of quotes from classic Who scripts, including William Hartnell’s famous speech from `The Dalek Invasion Of Earth’: ‘One day, I will come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.’” Read the rest of this entry
Memorial Day weekend is among the most cherished holidays in racing fandom, with the Indianapolis 500 culminating a month of racing and community events. For legions of followers the Indianapolis 500 is an annual rite, and for many fans the journey to the speedway is a pilgrimage to one of racing’s most hallowed spaces. In 1973 the New York Times celebrated the event and place when it intoned that “the 500 is more than a race. It is a folk festival, a happening. Its pageantry, spectacle and corn make it Middle America’s counterpart to France’s pilgrimage to Le Mans.”
The speedway experience involves systematic ritual, intense desire, and visitation to an important place, all of which have some parallels to pilgrims’ religious travel in particular and broader religious experience in general (compare Jean Williams’ 2012 study of pilgrimage to the IMS). Religious characterizations of sport fandom perhaps risk hyperbolizing the consequence of sport, and some observers have ridiculed the hackneyed definition of sports’ “hallowed ground.” In 2008, for instance, sportswriter Andrea Adelson complained that “There is nothing sacred about Augusta National, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field. So why are these places referred to in the same way we talk about the Sistine Chapel, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Wailing Wall?” Adelson argued that sporting places should be characterized as being “steeped in tradition.” Adelson’s distinction between sacred and secular places reveals a wariness of projecting sacred authenticity onto the prosaic reality of sporting venues, if not sport itself. Read the rest of this entry
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