A Q&A with English Alumna Ashley Hope Pérez, Author of ‘Out of Darkness’

ashleypicIn March 1937 a gas leak caused a massive explosion that killed almost 300 children and teachers at a school in New London, Texas. Amidst the backdrop of this catastrophic event, a Mexican-American girl falls in love with a Black boy in a segregated oil town.

In a town where store signs mandate “No Negroes, Mexicans, or dogs,” Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know not to cross the deeply entrenched color lines. Yet the heart wants what it wants and societal barriers are no match for young love.

Like a ticking time bomb, the tension builds as their love blossoms. And when tragedy strikes, the young lovers struggle to find a shred of light amidst the shroud of darkness. Will they overcome the forces of hate and intolerance that loom over their town, their school—even their own homes? You’ll have to read the book to find out! Out of Darkness hits shelves Sept. 1, 2015.

The author Ashley Hope Pérez—who just so happens to be a proud Longhorn—was kind enough to share some insight into this multifaceted tale of love, loss, family and the ugly forces that drive people apart. Read on to learn more about the book—and how many of the themes touch on issues we face today in American society.

What made you decide to write a story about the 1937 New London school explosion? 

I grew up about 20 minutes from New London. The explosion—which happened at 3:17 on March 18, 1937—was always a kind of shadowy event that I’d hear whispered about from time to time but rarely discussed openly. At one point, I remember driving by the site of the disaster with my father and him telling me the story of a little girl who could only be identified because she had colored her toenails with a crayon. I didn’t know many specifics of the explosion, only that it had killed hundreds of children. When I returned to the event as a novelist, I was interested in more than the explosion itself: I wanted to examine how this kind of tragedy might ripple through a community, bringing out the best in some and the worst in others and catalyzing more loss. 

How can readers relate to the characters in your book?

Okay, first some quick introductions. Four characters are at the heart of the story in Out of Darkness. There’s Wash Fuller.The teenage son of the New London Colored School’s principal, Wash has always lived in East Texas and prides himself on knowing his way around both the woods and the prettiest girls from Egypt Town, where most of the Black community lives. Wash’s days as a womanizer come to an end when he meets Naomi Vargas, a beautiful and painfully shy girl from San Antonio who has just moved to New London with her younger twin half-siblings, Beto and Cari (short for Roberto and Caridad). The three of them have been brought to East Texas by Naomi’s white stepfather after he has a conversion experience and decides he ought to bring his family back together.

Wash is easy for readers to relate to; he’s funny, loyal and passionate. Naomi is a quieter character, but readers quickly identify with her determination to protect the twins and her ability to persevere in spite of considerable hardship in the present and secrets from her past. Once Wash and Naomi fall in love, it would be impossible not to want them to have a future together. Romantic love intertwines with the love both Naomi and Wash feel for the twins, who also play an important part in the story. Some of the most beautiful parts of the book are when the four of them are together in the woods of East Texas.

What do you hope readers will take away from Out of Darkness?

I hope that readers will admire Naomi and Wash for their efforts to seize some joy for themselves at a time when the happiness and well-being of brown people was of little importance to most of American society. I hope that the barriers and flat-out cruelty that Naomi and Wash encounter in the world of 1937 may galvanize readers’ commitment to supporting people’s right to love whomever they love and build families around that love. That’s what Naomi and Wash try to do for the twins—make a family together in the secret still places along the Sabine River. 

Are there any themes in Out of Darkness that are relevant to current issues in our society? 

One of the most problematic views of racism is that it is “a thing of the past.” Out of Darkness shows racism and prejudice in the past, but it also creates opportunities to recognize the distressing continuities between our history and the present. We continue to see racialized violence in the news, both hate crimes like the church shooting in Charleston and acts of brutality by police and others that underscore disparities in how different members of our community are treated. This injustice and the distrust it breeds have deep roots. Out of Darkness asks readers to reckon with some of those roots as they existed here in Texas.

Beyond the blatant discrimination and violent expressions of white supremacy that unfold in the characters’ experiences, the novel offers glimpses of systematic discrimination, as in the tripartite segregation of schools into white, “colored,” and “Mexican” in cities like San Antonio. I taught for three years in an inner-city school in Houston, and I can tell you that the consequences of that segregation and the disenfranchisement it produced are still being felt in African American and Latino communities. 

What are you working on now?

A new novel, this time exploring Latino experiences in the Midwest. (Although born a Texan, I’ve been in the Midwest for nearly a decade, and apparently that’s about how long it takes for a new place to show up in my fiction.) The new book also involves family and tragedy, but that’s about all I can say about it at this point because I’m wildly superstitious about discussing details of work in progress. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I hope Texans will not be scared off by some of the difficult issues in the novel and that they will instead embrace the chance to dive into our history in the company of characters worthy of their love and attention. Some people have suggested that Out of Darkness is a “brave” book, but I think it’s equally important to acknowledge that reading about painful features of our past takes courage.

And, of course, a big thank you for the chance to share a bit about Out of Darkness with Longhorn readers. Many of my formative reading and writing experiences took place right on the UT campus between the wonderfully deteriorated walls of Parlin Hall. So… Hook ‘em!

Want a sneak peek into the book? Visit the Texas Observer to read an excerpt!

banner imageAbout the author: In addition to Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of the YA novels The Knife and the Butterfly, and What Can’t Wait. She grew up in Texas and taught high school in Houston before pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative literature. She is now a visiting assistant professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University and spends most of her time reading, writing and teaching on topics from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Arnulfo, and their son, Liam Miguel.

Educational Psychologist Delves into the True Psychology of African American Students

kevin-cokley-bookIn this excerpt from the introduction to his new book, The Myth of Black Anti-Intellectualism: A True Psychology of African American Students, psychologist and professor Kevin Cokley delves into his own history as a high school and college student, and explores how the evolution of his academic identity intersected with his evolving racial identity.

The book, which was published earlier this year, challenges the dominant narrative regarding black student achievement by examining the themes of black identity, the role of self-esteem, the hurdles that result in academic difficulties, and the root sources of academic motivation. In it, Cokley proposes a bold alternate narrative that uses black identity as the theoretical framework to examine factors in academic achievement and challenge the widely accepted notion of black anti-intellectualism.

High School

By high school, I had been identified as a “smart” student. I was in the highest-level classes that were available. I thought of myself as a good student, and fully embraced making good grades as a part of my academic identity.

I never considered myself as one of those super-smart, academically gifted students who always made straight As. However, I considered myself an above-average, hard-working student. I made honor roll often, but not all of the time. I did not make the National Honor Society, a disappointment that lingered with me for several years.

The defining moment in my young academic career were two programs called Medicine as a Career and Focus on Biology. They were summer enrichment programs geared toward academically gifted minority students (mostly African American) and Appalachian Whites (defined as Whites living in rural Appalachian areas who were presumably economically disadvantaged).

The programs brought these students together for two and five weeks, respectively, on the campus of Wake Forest University. The purpose of the programs was to encourage more ethnic-minority and economically disadvantaged students to pursue a career in medicine.

I had never been in a setting where there were large numbers of serious, goal-oriented, academically gifted Black students. The pride that I felt from my selection and participation in the programs was immeasurable. It was the first explicit experience that connected my identity as a Black student to my academic performance, and it changed me forever. When I completed the summer programs and returned home to get ready for school, I had a renewed sense of purpose. I also had a newfound resentment toward my White classmates, and toward living in a small, predominantly White “hick” town.

My eyes were now open. I was angry because I felt that for years I had been deprived of the opportunity to reach my potential as a student. I was also angry because I had considered myself a special Black student because I was excelling in my classes. I realized that I harbored beliefs that Black students could not excel academically, and that I believed I was the exception.

Living with a group of academically gifted Black students made me realize that I was, paradoxically, special yet not special. A whole new world of possibilities had been opened to me, and my racial and academic identities became more solidified. I had developed a new racial consciousness, and I was now empowered to be more vocal on race-related issues, while other Black students continued to sit back passively. I was ridiculed by certain Black and White students for being too militant, which only fueled my emerging Black consciousness.

College

Wake Forest University is a small, highly selective private liberal arts school filled mostly with upper-middle class White students. Being accepted there—the first Black student from my high school ever to do so—was a very proud moment in my life.

Within the first couple of days of college, I was approached and asked by some White students if I was a football player. I responded by saying no, and proudly pointed out that I was there on academic scholarship. It was a rude awakening to what would be the first of many “encounters” that the African American psychologist William Cross would describe.

I can vividly recall those first few days of college walking in the quad area and seeing a Confederate flag displayed from the dorm room of the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity. That flag was a constant reminder of the history and culture of Wake Forest and the old South, and a reminder that African American students were ethnic and racial minorities in an overwhelmingly White and sometimes unwelcoming environment.

Like many first-year college students, I was overwhelmed with the freedom I had to go anywhere I wanted, stay awake as long as I wanted, and pretty much do anything that I wanted. Academically, I could take whatever classes I wanted. Also like many first-year college students, I was pre-med, and I took biology, chemistry, psychology, and Latin in my first semester. After having attended two summer enrichment camps that were geared toward increasing the number of ethnic minorities in medicine as a career, I was certain that this was my destiny. However, biology and chemistry changed my destiny!

I struggled mightily in those classes, and ended up failing both classes while making Cs in my psychology and Latin classes. This was a rude awakening to the beginning of my college experience. I lost my academic scholarship, and was immediately placed on academic probation after my first semester. Never had I experienced such academic struggles before. A wave of self-doubt suddenly surrounded me, and my academic self-concept was shaken to its core. Had I bitten off more than I could chew? Was I not smart enough to be there? Did I really belong? If I flunked out of school, it would embarrass not only me, but my family.

My parents were extremely proud that I was attending Wake Forest University. Black students from my hometown, Pilot Mountain, were not supposed to be academic achievers. We were not supposed to go to colleges like Wake Forest University. If I flunked out, I would be confirming the doubts of all the naysayers who (I and my family believed) wanted me to fail.

The atrocious start in my first year haunted me for my entire four years of college. The truth of the matter was that I really was not as academically prepared as I should have been to do well in college. I did not know how to study effectively, nor did I know the amount of time that was needed to thoroughly master the information being presented in classes. I did not understand the importance of scheduling regular meetings with my professors to discuss material that I did not understand. For that matter, I did not even always know what I truly understood and what I did not. I rarely sought academic help, and when I did, I could not help but feel self-conscious about being a Black student who needed academic assistance. My academic self-concept took a beating during those four years of college, and left me wondering what my future held in store.

During the time that my academic self-concept was taking a beating, my racial consciousness and Black identity was growing. I entered Wake Forest already having a pretty strong Black identity that had been enhanced by my experiences in the two summer enrichment programs at Wake Forest. However, college is an experience in which racial and ethnic differences are often emphasized to a degree not seen in high school. There are numerous student organizations based on racial and ethnic identities and themes. Additionally, famous and provocative speakers are routinely brought to campus to stimulate and foster dialogue on important racial issues.

I immediately became involved in the Black Student Association (BSA), a staple organization seen on many predominantly White college campuses. I also joined the Gospel Choir and later a Black fraternity.

The BSA was the center of social and political activity for Black students on campus. One of my most vivid memories of the BSA was protesting South African apartheid. The BSA had partnered with another organization to stage a dramatic enactment of apartheid activity in the student cafeteria. When given a sign, several Black males (myself included) walked to several seemingly unsuspecting White females (who were actually willing participants in the demonstration), grabbed them out of their seats and dragged them away. The reaction was swift and dramatic. Several white males stood up, clearly angered and disturbed by what they were witnessing, and demanded that we stop.

At this point, a member of the BSA stood in front of the cafeteria and made a statement about apartheid, indicating that what people had just witnessed was a regular occurrence to Black people living under the brutal regime of South African apartheid. The adrenaline rush that I received from participating in this demonstration was incredible. More importantly, it was an influential experience that contributed greatly to my emerging critical racial consciousness.

Two speakers were brought on campus who had perhaps the greatest influence on my critical racial consciousness and increasing pride in my racial identity during college. These speakers were Jawanza Kunjufu and Na’im Akbar. Jawanza Kunjufu is best known for his book Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys. Na’im Akbar is a highly regarded and outspoken Black psychologist who advocates an Afrocentric philosophy to understand the conditions and psychology of Black folks.

The impact that hearing these two men speak had on my racial identity was incredible. Both men exuded a confidence, racial pride, and sense of purpose and commitment to Black people that I had never witnessed before. Na’im Akbar (or Baba Na’im, as he is affectionately called) was especially influential, as he sowed the early seeds of what would become my embrace of Afrocentric psychology.

Years later, I attended my 20-year class reunion. I was excited to see friends and acquaintances whom I had not seen in many years. One of these individuals was a White female named Tina. Tina had attended high school with me, and we ran track together both at East Surry High School and for a summer track club. We were also in all of the same advanced classes, and played in the band together. We were close friends in and out of school. Our lives were remarkably parallel in academics and athletics, so it was no surprise that we both applied and were accepted to Wake Forest University.

Once Tina and I started college, however, our paths rarely crossed outside of track. We were not in the same student organizations, and we did not socialize together. We had never talked about this, and in fact we had very few conversations while attending Wake Forest.

20 years later, I contacted Tina via Facebook and arranged to meet with her at our 20-year class reunion. During dinner, we reminisced about old times, especially the traumatic false start that I had in high school. Then a conversation that I did not anticipate took place.

Tina indicated that something had been bothering her for so many years, and she had always wanted to talk with me about it. She basically wanted to know what happened to us. Why didn’t we stay close while in college? I thought about her question very carefully. I do not think I had ever really thought about it much, and as I was reflecting on her question, the answer became obvious. I decided to be very candid with her, and responded by saying that I essentially discovered my Blackness in college.

I lapsed into a mini-lecture on the psychosocial development of Black college students, and how my racial identity was impacted by attending a predominantly White school. I talked about the importance of being around other students similar to myself, and the importance of belonging to Black student organizations for my racial identity. I also talked about my academic struggles, and the fear of failure that I thought would be attributed to being Black.

By the time I was a senior, I did not know what my future held in store for me. I did not think my grades were good enough to get accepted into any graduate program in psychology, so I never considered that a viable option. I participated in the job fair and hoped that my resume would be attractive to some company. I was encouraged when a pharmaceutical company contacted me for an initial interview. Later, I received another invitation for a second interview. I was very excited, and thought that I might actually have the chance of having a job waiting for me upon graduation. However, a third interview did not happen, and a job offer never materialized.

I was in a very bad place emotionally. In an independent research paper that I wrote in my last semester, my words reflected an angry and disillusioned Black male student, as evidenced by the title of my paper, “The Unknown Societal Conspiracy to Denigrate African-American Males.”

In the paper I made the following statement: “My feelings about myself are such that I feel as though I have disappointed my family, teachers, and, most importantly, myself. I did not make Dean’s List once while in college. My feelings of high aspirations upon entering college have been shattered beyond repair. My future is unknown. The person that I thought I would be upon graduation has never materialized. Many would say that I made my bed, now I must lie in it. And to a certain degree, this is true. However, I refuse to accept all of the blame. Social forces at work all around me have molded me into an embittered young Black man. Now I’m almost a college graduate. God only knows what young, uneducated and impoverished Black men must be feeling.”

As I reflect on my college years, I see that my time at Wake Forest was marked by two distinct experiences: one of academic struggle, and one of emerging Black consciousness. It is no accident that these themes would later define much of my scholarly work on African American students. 

Dr. Kevin Cokley is a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology as well as the Department of African and African American Diaspora Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. In addition to his extensive background in academic research, Dr. Cokley serves as the editor-in-chief for The Journal of Black Psychology and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis.

Save the Date: Austin African American Book Festival Set for June 27

33442_2720772Austin’s African American Book Festival will explore love, perseverance and intellectual growth under the heading “Black Lives Matter,” on June 27 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Carver Museum and Library. The event is free and open to the public.

Featured speakers include author M.K. Asante, novelist Beverly Jenkins, and Dr. Kevin Cokley, professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Educational Psychology.

 

asanteAsante, an award-winning author, poet and filmmaker, will discuss his memoir Buck, and how what he learned on urban streets helped him become not only an artistic tour de force, but also a tenured college professor.

 

jenkinsWith more than 30 titles to her credit, Jenkins is one of the most widely read writers of historical romances. Much of her work is set in the 19th century and features African American protagonists. She has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, People, and the Dallas Morning News.

 

cokelyIn an article for the Harvard Educational Review, Cokley challenges the notion that Black students are anti-intellectual. Cokely, who is also a counseling psychologist, explores how issues of identity impact the achievement of African-American students.

Once again the festival will host book discussions and a Texas author showcase.

 

Now in its ninth year, the African American Book Festival is a multigenerational event intended to promote literary exploration and library usage in the community.

For more information visit www.aabookfest.com or African American Book Festival on Facebook.

CantoMundo Event Celebrates National Poetry Month

UntitledIn celebration of national poetry month, the CantoMundo Poets at the UT Poetry Center are presenting a poetry reading event on Thursday, April 23 at the Perry-Castaneda Library.

The event will feature readings by Octavio Quintanilla, author of “If I Go Missing,” and Ire’ne Lara Silva, author of “Furia, Flesh to Bone,” and “Blood Sugar Canto.”

CantoMundo co-director and poet Celeste Guzmán Mendoza will lead a discussion on the daily sustenance of Chicano@ poetry, the role of CantoMundo in poetry today, and the political life of poetry broadsides. Barrio Writers youth poets will open the event and join in the closing conversation. Go to this website for more details.

In addition to the poetry reading event, Quintanilla and Lara Silva are offering two free writing workshops on Saturday April 25, 2-5 p.m. at Resistencia Bookstore, 4926 E. Cesar Chavez. Quintanilla’s workshop “What We Love about Poems” will take place at 2-3:30 p.m. Lara Silva’s workshop “Gritos: On Finding the Source of Our Voices” is scheduled for 3:30-5 p.m.

Please RSVP to: irenelarasilva@gmail.com

Co-Sponsors include Red Salmon Arts, UT Libraries, CantoMundo, Texas Commission on the Arts, City of Austin Cultural Arts Division.

Coming April 2: LLILAS Presents an Evening of Latin@ Poetry and Spoken Word

llilaseventStop by the Benson Latin American Collection for an evening of poetry readings and spoken-word performances on Thursday, April 2, from 7 to 9 p.m.

The 13th annual ¡A Viva Voz! Migraciones event, hosted by LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, will feature live readings and performances of original work by Central Texas–based poets and spoken word artists.

The following artists will share diverse perspectives around themes of migration and identify:

  • Ariana Brown, Afro-Mexicana poet, performer, and author
  • Marcos Cervantes (aka Mex Step of Third Root hip hop collective), educator and scholar
  • Las Krudas, Cuban hip hop artists
  • Teresa Palomo Acosta, poet, educator and historian
  • Moderator: Celeste Guzmán Mendoza, poet

This event is free and open to the public. Light refreshments provided. RSVP and find updates on Facebook at http://bit.ly/avv2015.

New Historical Novel by Former UT English Professor to Release this Fall

Harris headshotFormer UT Austin fiction writing and modern literature professor Elizabeth Harris will be releasing a novel Mayhem:  Three Lives of a Woman (Gival Press) this fall.

The historical novel, scheduled to drop Oct. 5, 2015, engages issues of gender, vigilantism, recovery from trauma, and nostalgia for the rural and small-town past.

Winner of the 2014 Gival Press Fiction Award, the book follows two stock farmers in 1936 Texas who are accused of castrating a neighbor. Mayhem is the story of their crime and its consequences, the violent past and standard gender relations that enable it, and its economic displacement of the modest, well-connected woman who occasions it.

“A great novel gives us Genesis, and so Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman calls a world into being. We get not only the odor and crackle of rural Texas beginning a hundred years ago, but also the spirits of that time and place. We suffer with a rancher’s wife, a woman catastrophically misunderstood. Violence proves inevitable — but then comes the real miracle. Elizabeth Harris summons up not one world but several, in rich and moving succession. Itʼs as if redemption were sympathy: as if to peer deeply into anyone is to understand everyone. If this sounds less like a God and more like a great storyteller, well, thatʼs what weʼve got. Harris squeezes palaver and tears from her Texas clay, even while making sure we see the gifted hands at work.”

— John Domini, author of A Tomb on the Periphery and other novels, as well as stories, criticism, and poetry.

Harris’ stories have appeared in a number of literary journals and have been anthologized in New Stories from the South, Best of Wind,  The Iowa Award, and Literary Austin. Her first book, The Ant Generator, received the University of Iowa’s coveted short fiction award.

The Writers’ League of Texas recently interviewed Elizabeth Harris about her favorite writers. She stated: “People ask you who your favorite writers are when they want you to talk about reading, and I name some books and their writers, but I seldom love everything a writer has written. I’ve been a passionate reader all my life, and I love many different books for different reasons.”

As yet untitled, Elizabeth’s current project is another contemporary novel with a historical setting. She and her husband, who are birders, divide their time between the Texas Coast and Austin.

Preview an excerpt of Mayhem at: www.elizabethharriswriter.com.

 

 

 

Texas Literature Authors Philipp Meyer and Don Graham to Speak at the Bob Bullock Museum

the-son-secondaryThe UT Michener Center for Writers and the Bullock Texas State History Museum will jointly sponsor a conversation between Michener Center alum Philipp Meyer, author of The Son, and Don Graham, J. Frank Dobie Professor of American and English Literature at UT Austin and legendary scholar of Texas literary history.

Their free talk, at 7:00 p.m.Thursday, February 19 at the Bullock, will explore how Meyer’s five years of research led to the prize-winning novel, how Texas mythology and history shaped the story, and how a transplant from Baltimore came to write one of the Great Texas, and Great American, novels.

Meyer received critical acclaim for his 2009 debut novel, American Rust, and The Son, published in 2013, was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and named in the Top Ten lists of the Washington Post, Amazon, Toronto Globe and Mail, USA Today and Chicago Tribune, among many other honors.

The New York Times said of the book, “only in the greatest historical novels do we come to feel both the distance of the past and our own likely complicity in the sins of a former age.  To that rank, we now add ‘The Son.'”  Meyer was first introduced to Texas novelists such as Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry—as well as to pivotal events in Texas history that inform his story—in a graduate seminar with Graham while earning his MFA at the Michener Center for Writers.

The program is part of the Bullock Museum’s Texas Art and Culture Series, which is generously supported by Lone Star Beer, the national beer of Texas.  The event is free of charge and open to the public.  The Bullock is located at 1800 Congress Avenue  at W. MLK Blvd.

History Professor Wins Prestigious Book Award for ‘In Search of the Amazon’

This post, authored by Susanna Sharpe, first appeared on the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS) website.  

garfieldHistory Professor Seth Garfiel received the prestigious Bolton-Johnson Prize Honorable Mention Award for his book In Search of the Amazon: Brazil, the United States, and the Nature of a Region (Duke, 2013).

The award was announced earlier this month at the annual conference of the American Historical Association in New York City. According to the website of the Conference on Latin American History, the Bolton-Johnson Prize is given to the best book in English on Latin American history published in the previous year, with honorable mention given to “an additional distinguished work deemed worthy” by the prize committee.

Criteria for the award include “sound scholarship, grace of style, and importance of the 978-0-8223-5585-4_prscholarly contribution.” The citation read at the awards ceremony praises Garfield’s work on a complex and often misunderstood topic: “Seth Garfield brings the best methodologies of social and political history into dialogue with new debates over environmental and transnational history. Examining the impact of World War II and the United States’ need for rubber on Brazilian policy in the Amazon, Garfield underscores the role of labor migration from the drought-stricken Northeast and competing efforts by military, medical, religious, and industrial leaders to forge a rational male workforce. The book traces transformations in ideas about race, gender, and family as central components in capitalist exploitation as well as in conceptualizations of ‘nature’ and ‘national resources.’ If contemporary environmental movements portray the Amazon as a pristine forest inhabited by traditional people, Garfield’s book lays bare the heavy presence of people and policy that continually made the Tropics.”

In Search of the Amazon was also selected by Knowledge Unlatched for a pilot open-access program for scholarly books. According to the organization’s website, through this pilot project, Knowledge Unlatched is seeking “a financially sustainable route to Open Access for large numbers of scholarly books.”

Garfield is director of the Institute for Historical Studies in the Department of History, and the LLILAS undergraduate faculty adviser. This semester, he will teach the graduate seminar Postcolonial Brazil.

Save the Date: A Reading by Poet Matthea Harvey

ddddThe UT Michener Center for Writers will host a reading by poet Matthea Harvey on Thursday, February 12, at 7:30 p.m. in the Avaya Auditorium, POB 2.302, on UT campus at the southeast corner of Speedway and 24th Streets.

Matthea Harvey is the author of five books of poetry, including If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? (2014); Modern Life (2007), winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and New York Times Notable Book; Sad Little Breathing Machine (2004); and Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (2000). She has also written two children’s books, Cecil the Pet Glacier and The Little General and the Giant Snowflake.  She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence and lives in Brooklyn.

Poet Jorie Graham has described Harvey’s syntactically shape-shifting poems as “generous, urgent and savingly committed to beauty.”  New York Times reviewer David Orr has said her work “ranges from daffy to plangent—basically, two scoops of John Ashbery and a sprinkling of Gertrude Stein.”

Parking is available in the nearby UT San Jacinto Garage, and the event is free and open to the public.

 

Q&A: Sociologist Ben Carrington Talks Race, Sports and Politics

30143_97814129010313Starting today, athletes, head coaches, researchers and academics from across the nation are convening at the Forty Acres to discuss ways to improve academic and career success for Black student athletes. To celebrate The Black Student-Athlete Conference, we are bringing back a post from our archives featuring a Q&A with UT Austin Sociologist Ben Carrington, author of “Race, Sport and Politics” (Sage, Sept. 2010).

Read on to learn more about his research on athletes of color, and how academics can play a critical role in dispelling racial stereotypes that continue to be enforced in the media today. 

Go to this website for more about the conference, hosted by the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and two of its units: the African American Male Research Initiative and the Longhorn Campaign for Men of Color. Use #blackstudentathlete to participate in the live Twitter conversation.

This post was originally published in August, 2010.

Benjamin Carrington is an associate professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.

Ben Carrington is an associate professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.

 What is the major theme of your book? 

I argue that the sociology of sport needs to go beyond some of the traditional ways of thinking about race and sport. Once you understand sport’s historical and contemporary role in shaping racial discourse, you not only see how race impacts sport, but also how sport itself changes ideas about races and racial identity in society as a whole.

How did the world of sports alter perceptions of race during the 20th century?

At the beginning of the 20th century, whites were considered to be superior to blacks, intellectually, aesthetically and even physically. By the 1930s, this logic begins to shift as blacks are viewed as potentially physically superior to whites in matters related to sports. Jack Johnson played a pivotal role in challenging these ideas of white supremacy when he became the first black heavyweight champion of the world, which is supposed to be the epitome of superior physical strength.

What role do you believe does politics play in sports?

Some people argue that sports work like a distorting mirror. It has an ideological effect that makes us believe we’re all happily a part of the same world. In the World Cup, one of the FIFA advertisements stated, ‘this is not about politics, war, religion or economics. It’s about football.’ That makes us feel like we’re all human beings that love the same sport. But in truth it’s all about politics when you see politicians in the stands promoting their countries and wearing their national colors. On one hand it’s an apolitical platform for games and entertainment, but on the other hand sport is deeply infused with political ideology.

Your book argues that the media continues to perpetuate fears of the black male athlete. Could you point out a recent example of this? 
 
The April, 2008 cover of Vogue generated some controversy over how NBA star LeBron James is depicted with supermodel Gisele Bundchen. In the picture, LeBron has striking similarities to the classic ‘King Kong’ image carrying off Fay Wray, a racially loaded simian metaphor that draws upon white fears about black male hypersexuality and violence. The magazine cover metonymically plays with these deeply racist symbols in using one of the world’s most famous black men to portray a ferocious gorilla carrying off a white woman.

Looking back at the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa, could you give me an example of racial bias among the sports media?

When the United States played Ghana in the World Cup, the Ghanaians were often described as both ‘athletic’ and ‘unpredictable.’ That notion implies they’re emotionally unstable, and that even they don’t know what they’re going to do next. But at the same time, they are somehow endowed with extraordinary physical strength and ability, as if the other players at the World Cup are somehow ‘unathletic.’ Their culture is attributed as unstable, so these racial attitudes, which are not just about Ghana but ultimately about all black people, are reproduced in sports. It’s what sociologists refer to as ‘racism without racists.’ Nobody aside from extremists admits to being racist anymore, but we often use ways of seeing the world that rely upon racial frameworks that end up producing racist effects and outcomes. This is what I refer to in the book, drawing on the work of the sociologist Joe Feagin, as the ‘white colonial frame.’ There are no objectively existing ‘races,’ only ways in which we see race, and sport plays a very important role in the production and reproduction of these ideas about race and racial difference.

You argue that black athletes are commonly seen as physically gifted and intellectually stunted. What do you mean by this?

You see this in the way that many people believe that black athletes are ‘naturally’ gifted for sports, implying that their success comes from within, that it is rooted in their biology. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that there is a split between the physical and the intellectual. Just as we might admire an animal’s spectacular physicality, we don’t therefore assume that animals have our cognitive capabilities. So the praising of black athleticism often serves to reinforce notions of black intellectual inferiority.

How do you believe these stereotypes are perpetuated in the sports media?

White sports commentators and journalists used to be very explicit in comparing black athletes to monkeys and gorillas and cheetahs. Today they are more circumspect and instead tend to over-emphasize black players physical attributes – power, speed, strength and so on – and conversely tend to highlight the ‘intelligence’ and ability to ‘read the game’ of white athletes, who supposedly lack the ‘natural advantage’ of their black peers but can make up for it by their better play-making abilities. You often see this in how white basketball and football players are described, especially quarterbacks.

I would also add that college sports help to perpetuate these myths, especially given how committed big-time college sports programs are to winning conference and national titles using the labor of predominately black ‘student-athletes.’ At the same time, they demonstrate a lack of concern with actually graduating these students, most of whom will not go on to become professional athletes. Thus, these issues are really systemic, running through professional sports to the college level and even into high schools where we see similar patterns.

What kind of reaction do you hope to get from your fellow sociologists after your book is released in September?

The book challenges mainstream sociologists to take sport more seriously than they have done up until now and takes sociologists of sport to task too for not engaging critically enough with questions of race, so I’m hoping there will be a reaction of some kind. Better to be discussed and debated than ignored is my motto right now.