American Studies

Q&A with Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez, author of Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper

Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez is Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, author of Securing Paradise: Tourism and Militarism in Hawai‘i and the Philippines, and coeditor of Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai‘i. Her latest book is Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper, which follows the life of Filipina vaudeville and film actress Isabel Rosario Cooper, who was the mistress of General Douglas MacArthur, to explore the contours of empire as experienced on the scale of personal relationships.

If most people know anything about Isabel Rosario Cooper, it’s that she was General Douglas MacArthur’s mistress. In footnotes to most histories, she is portrayed as a tragic figure, “a beautiful woman who died of heartbreak.” What made you want to tell her story more fully?

This kind of feminine figuration has always served as camouflage for complexity, a shorthand that feeds into and is fed by a colonial fantasy of brown women longing for white men, as well as narrative desire for familiar tropes. This version of Isabel Cooper’s story is not in the footnotes: it is front and center because it’s the comfortable and typical characterization of “women like her.” When I started to dig into the footnotes of MacArthur biographies, I discovered a kind of recursive pattern that boiled down to a reliance on repeated citations of sources that had somehow become authoritative evidence for her story. What became clear was that these sources that were more hearsay or even outright inaccurate had circulated enough times that they had hardened into truth—in particular the version that revolved around the General as her object of yearning and heartbreak had become the standard. The work of postcolonial feminist scholars has taught us that of course there’s something more operating beneath the flattened image of dead, beautiful, heartbroken women, something more than “MacArthur’s mistress.” The short interludes that bothered to portray Isabel Cooper in MacArthur biographies and their suspect footnotes that were cited as evidence didn’t match up to this work.

Empire's MistressThere’s also a way in which stories like hers are dismissed as unworthy in the sense that her biggest known “accomplishment” is sleeping with MacArthur—often read as betrayal at worst, or venal at most—another way to marginalize women’s stories. At the same time, I did not want to dismiss her sexual agency, because to some degree, that was crucial to the kind of power and identity she wielded. From the great work that has been done on the early colonial period in the Philippines, particularly on the “woman question,” we know that the lives of Filipinas were complex, cosmopolitan, and often grappled with the contradictions engendered by the shifts in colonial society. I wanted to tell her story more fully because it deserved to be told with the same kind of effort in terms of research and writing as stories of men like MacArthur, and I felt that it would be a good vehicle to also interweave a parallel account about archives and genres, and the ways in which both open and up and foreclose how we learn to narrate ourselves.

You choose not to structure your book chronologically like a traditional biography. Instead you begin with her relationship with MacArthur and then jump around in time. You also feature documents, pictures and imagined letters and conversations in between your chapters. Why did you choose this structure? How does it help tell Cooper’s story more fully?

It took me a while to figure out how to tell her story. I knew I needed to include elements of biography—because so little of her life is actually known, and the broader historical context of her story is unfamiliar to most readers—so some part of this had to be fleshed out. But I also knew that I didn’t want to present an account that was somehow whole or authoritative or forthright, like an exhumation or an explanation, because I didn’t want to repeat the pattern of how she has been narrated in such an overdetermined way. I did begin with a chronological draft, but this structure felt like it didn’t make room for the ways in which patterns repeated themselves in her life, or how a particular part of her story (the MacArthur interlude) pre-empts others. It felt inert—and so I began with her death, because so much of what is written about her pivots on the suicide of this beautiful woman, and the half-truths or outright lies that adhered to it. I also foregrounded her time with MacArthur in the narrative, a bit perversely, because I wanted to arrest the desire to center MacArthur and frame him as the “reveal” of the story later on in the book. I felt like that the strange enticement of that infamous scandal was not something I wanted the reader to be invested in. The few years of her life during which she associated with MacArthur has come to define her and how she’s narrated: it’s the hook that draws most people to her story, but I didn’t want it operate as the climax of the narrative. It is certainly not the main driving force of her life, even as it is often characterized this way. I try to make the case that this moment is more an effect, rather than a cause.

The overall structure of the book also pulls from the protracted, piecemeal, and interrupted process of my research into her life, and from the sometimes-unexpected and last-minute way that new sources would shift a whole arc I had neatly mapped out. The sparseness and inaccuracy of the existing writing and archival materials on Isabel Cooper resists that neat and orderly biographical narrative: there are so many moments that are lost to history because of lack of documentation, and in her case, contradiction, inconsistency, absence, or outright error in whatever records can be pieced together. So that’s another story in itself: the colonial archive’s promises and secrets. I was struck by how so much of the narrative about her is fictional (in the sense of repeated inaccuracies), and as I dug deeper, how much of this fiction she also perpetrated. It gave me permission to speculate about moments that might not have documentation, or to invent, as she did, stories about herself.

Cooper goes by many different names in her life, from Dimples as a child performer, to Chabing Cooper, Elizabeth Cooper, and Belle Cooper, to a married name of Isabel Kennamer. Why does Cooper constantly rename herself and shift her identity?

To me, this was a strategy that was tied to moments in her life where she was reinventing herself, or starting over. She was someone who had, at a very young age, entered the world of the stage and screen, so taking on roles was a habit she never dropped. It was something she also learned from her mother, to some extent. But she also had really distinct periods in her life: she crossed the Pacific several times, experienced very diverse living conditions, married twice, had affairs, and made big choices about her career. I think renaming herself gave her some modicum of control over conditions that were far beyond her power to manage, and later on, allowed for her to have a clean slate when so much of her past tended to creep up on her unexpectedly due the lingering effects of US imperialism. As a researcher, this made tracking her occasionally tricky: it felt sometimes that these past decisions on her part were also about refusing an easy narration on mine. It forced me to pause and think about what went into her decisions to go by a particular name at different points in her life.

You say that “sex, and lots of it, defined the colonial encounter.” How does focusing on intimate relationships like that of Cooper and MacArthur change the way we view colonial history?

I owe so much of this work to postcolonial feminists who understand the intimate as a site of colonial power, and to work by Philippine Studies and Filipinx diaspora studies scholars in particular who have explored how sex and sexuality operated in the US-Philippine colonial world. My ability to tell Isabel Cooper’s story is built on that foundational research, and my claim is not new. What I try to shed a bit of light on is how the contradictions of American claims to benevolence and discourses of superiority break down when you look at how empire played out through relationships between people. So many of the colonial encounters turned on sex—the archives are filled with both overt confessions, allusions, or outright mentions of sexually transmitted diseases or decisions about the management of sex work. It’s dirty reading at times. I was interested in the messiness of transactions that revolved around sex or were defined through sexual exchange, as well as how the racial carnal desires at the heart of empire shaped relations well after the actual arrangement or encounter occurred. Who had the upper hand in these kinds of arrangements or coercions was not always clear, and that made for a fascinating dynamic to explore. Isabel Cooper operated within this colonial milieu and the ways she understood, navigated, and leveraged it gives us a sense of the push and pull, and the possibilities and limits of human agency and creativity at a more intimate scale of empire.

What can we learn about Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s from Cooper’s story? How does centering the experiences of non-white actors change the way we think about this era and its films?

I don’t know that we learn much more than we already know about how the Hollywood gambit was a story about deep disappointment for non-white actors in the 1940s and 1950s. For all the Anna May Wongs and Philip Ahns who carved out some kind of a career against and alongside the deep racism and sexism that defined Hollywood culture, there were hundreds of aspirants like Isabel Cooper whose willing and strategic self-exoticizations fell far short of any kind of living. It is probably safer to say that Cooper supplemented her income with her film acting roles but supported herself mainly from nightclub work. The casual mention of casting couch culture, or the matter-of-fact ways she tried to position herself for “Oriental” roles or parts for which she could make a racial stretch was evident in the letters that she wrote during that time, as well as in the industry literature itself. In some ways, her experience was more the rule, rather than the exception that gets written about.

How have artists and people of Filipino descent remembered and reimagined Isabel Rosario Cooper? What does her legacy mean to people today?

For most Filipinos, Isabel Cooper first registers as MacArthur’s mistress, with all the titillation and scandal that entails. This is why interest around her endures. In so many ways, this bit of her story feeds into the melodramatic habits that characterizes some of Hollywood/Manila cinema of her time, as well the theater of everyday politics in the Filipino diaspora. She is also known to some extent as a performer on stage and screen. Filipino cinema is just a bit over a century old, so there has been renewed interest in its pioneers—and as a crossover vaudeville star who made a big early impression in the first “modern” Filipino silent films, Isabel Cooper (she went by Elizabeth Cooper in film) is noteworthy.

Over the course of my research and writing, I also encountered visual artists (one of whom I write about), and writers (both fiction and non-fiction) who grapple with the kinds of narratives that adhere to Isabel Cooper. I think she continues to attract this kind of interest because when you dig deep enough, there’s a lot more to her story beyond the superficiality of MacArthur’s mistress that is typically the first draw. I look to these interpretations as retellings that reveal the inadequacy of the “mistress” framework. My purpose in the book is not to supplant or supersede any of these creative encounters with her, but rather to shake up the assumptions that produce a particular narrative account that is a habit of imperial culture, and one that clearly is not enough to contain her.

Read the introduction to Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E21GNZLZ.

 

A Conversation between the Editor and Designer of William Gedney’s A Time of Youth

A Time of Youth: San Francisco, 1966-1967 by William Gedney brings together eighty-seven of the more than two thousand photographs Gedney took in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood between October 1966 and January 1967 while on a Guggenheim Fellowship. In these photographs Gedney documents the restless and intertwined lives of the disenchanted youth who flocked to what became the epicenter of 1960s counterculture.
William Gedney intended to publish the series as a book and completed a draft design in 1969. Gedney also wrote a formal statement about the project and notes on his preferred scale and dimensions for the book. Sadly Gedney was never able to publish A Time of Youth in his lifetime. However, his original design, notes, and prints are preserved and accessible at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University, which is where Lisa McCarty first encountered A Time of Youth in 2014.
More than fifty years after Gedney completed the design, A Time of Youth has finally been published. We’re pleased to share a conversation between McCarty, the book’s editor, and the designer, Amy Ruth Buchanan, about how they realized Gedney’s vision for the publication.

gedney booksLisa: I remember the first time I visited the Press and presented the photographs from A Time of Youth and Gedney’s notes on the book design. There were audible ooh’s and ahh’s as I moved through my slideshow. Was there something specific about the San Francisco photographs that captured your attention? Or was it the knowledge of a dormant publication and Gedney’s struggle to publish them that you found compelling?

Amy: Absolutely both! I had known and loved Gedney’s work for a while, a love likely rooted in my long-ago subscription to DoubleTake magazine, as well as my familiarity with the earlier book What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney, edited by Geoff Dyer and Margaret Sartor. But the show you mounted at Perkins Library and the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library in the fall of 2015 was a big deal. Before seeing that exhibit, I didn’t really know about his work as a designer, his meticulous notebooks and his carefully planned maquettes for proposed books. As a lover of photography and book design, it was poignant and inspiring to see these items from the collection. When I heard you were in discussions with the Press to bring us one or more of these never-realized books, I was thrilled.

And then, yes, the photos themselves are completely captivating. So intimate and textured. Some of the young people appear again and again so they are like characters in a novella. He mentions this himself in one of the notebook pages you reproduce: “I am attempting a literary form in visual terms I am telling a story with characters that reappear and scenes that are repeated.”

Do you know if any of these people have been tracked down as Gedney’s work has garnered more and more attention? I wonder what they thought of Gedney.

Lisa: I’m so glad you remember the exhibition I organized of Gedney’s book designs and that it made an impact on you. Intimate Gestures: Handmade Books by William Gedney, was the first exhibit to highlight Gedney’s work as a designer and book artist. So many artists and curators came to know Gedney through Dyer and Sartor’s book, and later the book that the photographer Alec Soth edited. But very few people know about Gedney’s commitment to books or that there are seven complete book designs in his archive. I hope A Time of Youth begins to reveal this other side of Gedney’s artistic practice.

But in terms of the people depicted in A Time of Youth, during my time as curator of Gedney’s archive from 2014-2019 unfortunately I never encountered any of his subjects/collaborators from San Francisco. There are many names of Gedney’s contacts in his journals and notebooks, but these names were not correlated with the images themselves. However, Gedney did met and spent a significant amount of time with the philosopher Eric Hoffer and his companion Lili Osborne while he was in San Francisco. Gedney actually corresponded with them for many years afterwards.

You’ve been able to work on several photography books for the Press, but A Time of Youth presented specific challenges and rewards. This is a posthumous publication, which precluded direct collaboration with the artist. And as editor, my concept was to preserve as many of William Gedney’s decisions as possible. Was this a daunting or exciting prospect for you as a designer?

Amy: Very daunting but I also felt confident that between the two of us, we could do the project justice. The question for each decision along the way was: how prescriptive was his choice here? How closely must we follow it? The starting place was the trim size: the maquettes are 8.5 inches square. We agreed from the very start that maintaining the square trim was important, but did it need to be exactly 8.5 inches? I knew a book that small would be lovely and unusual, but in the end we decided to go just a little bigger, 9” square, to give us room for the photos sized generously with handsome white margins.

Translating Gedney’s cover sketch into the final jacket was another challenge. His sketch includes hand-drawn type, as would have been the norm for a book designer at that time. The italic letterforms reminded me of a Bodoni typeface, with the exaggerated contrast of thick & thin strokes and the distinctive, jaunty little upstrokes on the italics. I chose another typeface, Kepler, from the same family as Bodoni, the Didones. Kepler is named for the German mathematician Johannes Kepler—I think Gedney, the meticulous planner, might have liked that (I’m thinking of his notebook pages on Japanese bookbinding styles).

Gedney original design

Original book cover design by William Gedney

Throughout, of course, I relied on you, Lisa, as the Gedney expert to give feedback on many choices, big and small. You are also an artist and photographer yourself, so I knew you’d have helpful feedback on the image reproductions.

Did you find it hard to know where to draw the line when deciding how (and how much) to adjust his images for printing?

Lisa: In my mind, this was a HUGE responsibility and something I took very seriously. It was easy to establish that we shouldn’t crop ANYTHING and that we needed to preserve the sequence of the images. We also agreed that the documents and ephemera from Gedney’s journals shouldn’t be “cleaned up” or made to appear like fresh new paper.

But admittedly there were moments in the editing of the photographs themselves where I studied a dust spot (to make sure it was a dust spot) much longer than was probably necessary or I when I toggled changes in the tonal range repeatedly to make sure I wasn’t losing any information. But, this kind of meticulous work is something I do in the editing of my own photographs as well. So it was a familiar process with just a bit more weight to it. As an artist I know how important each of these decisions are and how they can affect the interpretation of the image.

We both agreed pretty quickly that the project ephemera should be featured prominently in the book. Were Gedney’s notes and journals inspiring? And is it difficult to work with ephemera in the design and printing process?

Amy: Oh I love working with ephemera. It’s such a gift to have this look into his life as a working artist. I love nothing more than hearing someone else’s shoptalk and these notebooks are very shoptalky! I am glad we were able to keep those images in full color. We had them carefully silhouetted so that the papers would sort of float on the white page—they have such presence. I can’t remember who pointed it out to me—you, or one of our designers, or both, but I love how the book ends with the word, “Wow,” in Gedney’s hand.

Lisa: Yes! Concluding the book with the “Wow” entry from Gedney’s handwritten list of “words used in San Francisco” was definitely intentional. I wanted Gedney to have the first and last words in the book, and the “Wow” entry seemed like a perfect ending.

wow

Page from William Gedney’s list of words used in San Francisco

Amy: I am always fascinated by writers and researchers who get to immerse themselves in an archive. I imagine it is by turns overwhelming, intoxicating, emotional, and tedious. Do you remember moments from your early encounters with the Gedney archive?

 Lisa: Oh, yes! I remember the first time I saw the book projects and A Time of Youth particularly. It was during my first month, maybe even the first few weeks, on the job as curator of the Archive of Documentary Arts in the Rubenstein Library back in 2014. I was getting a tour of the Technical Services department where archives are housed and cataloged. Before I started the job, the Library had decided to prioritize the Gedney’s archive for re-housing (getting new boxes, folders, ect.) and the boxes lined a long row of 8-foot-tall library shelves. I was familiar with Gedney’s work from studying with Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris, and had used the Gedney collection in the reading room of the Library. But I hadn’t seen the archive laid out all together at once until that moment. It was overwhelming at first, but also so inspiring.

At first, I didn’t know where to begin. What box do you open when presented with a wall of nearly 60,000 items made by one person over the course of a lifetime? I scanned the labels on the MANY boxes and saw one labeled “Book Projects.” I was working on my own first book of photographs at the time, and the prospect of a Gedney book piqued my curiosity. I pulled the box off the shelf and was treated to a treasure trove. I think I stayed the rest of the afternoon to look at everything. This first encounter was really one of those magical and revelatory research moments. I felt lucky, inspired, surprised, and a little melancholy all at once; these beautiful books had been completed and dormant for so long. I knew on the spot that the finished book should be published.

journal entry

Gedney Journal entry, March 22-23, 1969 (has the quote Amy mentions)

Amy: There’s an intriguing note in one of the journal pages about the difficulty of working in spreads, that the need to have two images on a spread that are “congenial” with one another might occasionally mean you put in “a lot of pictures that are only half as good.” I can’t really imagine which ones he is talking about. Do you have a favorite pairing from his sequence?

 Lisa: I love that note too! Gedney was perhaps his own toughest critic, but I think this made him an extraordinary editor of his own work. There’s so many interesting and sensitive pairings, but my personal favorite is the spread with the two different couples entwined on opposite pages.

spread 1

Spread from Gedney’s 1969 book design for A Time of Youth.

 

spread 2

The same spread in the finished book.

Lisa McCarty is Assistant Professor of Photography at Southern Methodist University, author of Transcendental Concord, and coauthor of William Gedney: Only the Lonely 1955–1984. Amy Ruth Buchanan is the Design Manager for Books and Journals at Duke University Press. You can read McCarty’s introduction to A Time of Youth free on our website. And save 30% on the book with coupon E21YOUTH.

Black History Month Reads

February is Black History Month! To celebrate we are sharing some of our recent books and journals that explore this essential field.

In Emancipation’s Daughters, Riché Richardson examines how five iconic black women—Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé—defy racial stereotypes and construct new national narratives of black womanhood in the United States.

In Point of Reckoning, Theodore D. Segal narrates the fraught and contested fight for racial justice at Duke University—which accepted its first black undergraduates in 1963—to tell both a local and national story about the challenges that historically white colleges and universities throughout the country continue to face. Segal has two online events for Black History Month: catch him at a talk sponsored by Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies this Thursday, February 10, and at an event sponsored by the Duke Alumni Association on February 24.

Brigitte Fielder’s Relative Races presents an alternative theory of how race is constructed with readings of nineteenth-century personal narratives, novels, plays, stories, poems, and images to illustrate how interracial kinship follows non-heteronormative, non-biological, and non-patrilineal models of inheritance in nineteenth-century literary culture.

Brandi Clay Brimmer analyzes the US pension system from the perspective of poor black women in the period before, during, and after the Civil War outlines the struggles of mothers, wives, and widows of black Union soldiers to claim rights in the face of unjust legislation in Claiming Union Widowhood.

Powers of Dignity by Nick Bromell examines how Frederick Douglass forged a distinctively black political philosophy out of his experiences as an enslaved and later nominally free man in ways that challenge Anglo-Continental traditions of political thought.

In A People’s History of Detroit, Mark Jay and Philip Conklin use a Marxist framework to tell a sweeping story of Detroit from 1913 to the present, outlining the complex socio-political dynamics underlying major events in Detroit’s past, from the rise of Fordism and the formation of labor unions to deindustrialization and the city’s recent bankruptcy.

Painter, photographer, and cofounder of AFRICOBRA Wadsworth A. Jarrell tells the definitive history of the group’s creation, history, and artistic and political principles and the ways it captured the rhythmic dynamism of black culture and social life to create uplifting art for all black people in AFRICOBRA.

In Universal Tonality, jazz critic and historian Cisco Bradley tells the story of the life and music of bassist and composer William Parker, who for fifty years has been a monumental figure in free jazz. Join Bradley, Parker, our own Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker, and Anthony Reed for a special live online event on Friday, February 19.

Maureen Mahon documents the major contributions African American women vocalists have made to rock and roll throughout its history in Black Diamond Queens. These women include Big Mama Thornton, Betty Davis, Tina Turner, and Merry Clayton. Catch Mahon, along with Daphne Brooks, at an online Black History Month event about Black women in rock, sponsored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on February 22.

Infamous Bodies by Samantha Pinto explores how histories of and the ongoing fame of Phillis Wheatley, Sally Hemings, Sarah Baartman, Mary Seacole, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta generate new ways of imagining black feminist futures.

Policing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination,” a special issue of Radical History Review edited by Amy Chazkel, Monica Kim, and A. Naomi Paik, helps us imagine a world without police by examining historical cases in which people resolved social problems and maintained social peace through means other than relying on formal institutions of law enforcement.

And check out our Racial Justice Syllabus, one of several staff-curated syllabi focusing on today’s most critical issues.

Q&A with Theodore D. Segal, Author of Point of Reckoning

 

Photo of Theodore D. Segal

Photo by Eli Turner

Theodore D. Segal is a lawyer and member of the board of directors for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He received his undergraduate degree from Duke in 1977. His new book is Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University which narrates the fraught and contested fight for racial justice at Duke University—which accepted its first black undergraduates in 1963—to tell both a local and national story about the challenges that historically white colleges and universities throughout the country continue to face.

You were a corporate lawyer for many years and then turned to writing. Why did you write this book in particular?

I wanted to understand how we ended up here. How is it possible that 50 years after the end of the tumultuous Sixties, our schools, workplaces, and society continue to grapple with so many of the same issues of race and racism that were the focus of activism years ago. I believed that by looking closely at the years immediately following desegregation at Duke, I could expose the entrenched attitudes and narrow, reflexive responses to desegregation that sparked protest and served to stifle racial change at the university. 

Point of ReckoningThis was happening at universities across the country, why Duke?

I was a student at Duke in the 1970s and had the opportunity to study Black and white student activism at the school in the Sixties. More broadly, Duke is an ideal setting to study the racial issues that are the focus of my book. Called “the plantation” by many Black workers, members of the Durham Black community, and students, Duke has a long history of segregation and racial exclusion. The school is among a group of prominent southern historically white colleges and universities (HWCUs) that desegregated only when forced to do so in the early Sixties. In the late Sixties, Duke had significant white and Black student protests only ten months apart. This juxtaposition provides a unique opportunity to examine how racial attitudes informed the ways that white trustees, administrators, and faculty perceived, and responded to, white and Black student protest.  

Why do you consider the arrival of Black students at Duke a “historic encounter”?

The arrival of Black students marked a profound change for Duke and other HWCUs. For decades, Jim Crow and segregation had defined the organization and daily operations of these schools. Desegregation created immense challenges for all parties. White administrators, faculty, and students, most of whom had never interacted with a Black person other than in a service capacity, were forced to learn—for the first time—how to relate to Black students. Likewise, Black students, the vast majority of whom had never interacted with white individuals as equals, faced their own challenge: how to deal with white administrators and faculty, and white students as peers. How would they live and work together at Duke? Under Jim Crow, the academic and social opportunities offered by Duke were for whites only. The “Duke Experience” was a training ground for advancement in white America. Theoretically at least, desegregation meant that Black students now would have the chance to share in these opportunities. But how that worked depended on whether Duke was prepared to invest the political capital, as well as the economic and human resources, necessary for Black students to realize their full potential. How Duke administrators and professors and the Black students responded to one another in this initial encounter set the pattern for race relations at the university for decades to come. 

How did the University prepare for the arrival of Black students?

Duke did little to prepare itself for the challenges desegregation would present. The university did not study the experience of other schools that had recently desegregated. Duke made no changes to anticipate or address Black students’ distinctive cultural, academic, and social needs. It did not monitor how the new Black students were managing and what challenges they were facing. Administrators and faculty made only modest attempts to get to know the Black students personally once on campus. As one administrator described, Duke looked at desegregation “from a white perspective.” The chance to attend Duke was seen as a great opportunity for the new Black students, and school leaders believed that the Black students would adjust to campus life through what one described as a natural kind of “amalgamation.” The Duke president in the Sixties commented later that, in essence, the university said to these students, “come in, be white.” This is not what these students wanted or needed.

How did Black students experience Duke during the early years of desegregation?

Duke’s first classes of Black students grew up, for the most part, in protective, segregated Black communities in the South where family, school, and church worked in concert to foster achievement and self-respect. Arriving in the midst of Duke’s “sea of white” was, according to one Black student, “almost as complete a shock as you can encounter.” Highly accomplished and initially “grateful” for the chance to attend Duke, almost all of the school’s Black students encountered racism: academic deans who assumed the students were weak academically; discriminatory grading (especially in writing courses); physical and verbal intimidation; hostility from campus security; racist symbols such as display of the Confederate Flag and the singing of Dixie at athletic events; exclusionary fraternity and sorority admissions policies; and offensive comments in the dorm. In addition, some Jim Crow policies and practices remained in place at Duke even after desegregation. These experiences, coupled with the small number of Black students on campus, led to profound feelings of loneliness and isolation.

 You write that the Black students who came to Duke in the early years following desegregation were the “good kids” in their communities whose families, churches, and schools raised them to be high-achieving “rule followers.” How did these young people become so deeply engaged in campus activism and direct protest?

Multiple factors converged to make this transformation possible. Loneliness and isolation prompted students to form the Afro American Society (AAS)—at first a social outlet that allowed Black students to get to know one another and remain in contact.  As AAS meetings were held, feelings of isolation ebbed and Black students became a very close—and very separate—community within Duke. Black students came to see that the university had failed totally to provide them with the academic, social and cultural resources necessary for them to thrive at Duke. With Black Power and Black campus activism emerging throughout the country, the students found a political and cultural framework for understanding their situation at Duke, as well as a protest strategy for addressing common concerns.

Duke had a large white student protest in April 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., followed by a takeover of Duke’s administration building by Black students in February 1969. How did the response of trustees, administrators, and faculty to these two protests differ?   

In April 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., over 250 predominantly white students marched in the rain to the home of the Duke president to present him with a list of four demands. The president invited them inside out of the weather and called them “guests” when they refused to leave. After 36 hours, the group moved to Duke’s main quadrangle. Over a four-day protest that came to be known as the “Silent Vigil,” over 1,500 protestors joined the sit-in. A simultaneous dining hall and class boycott, as well as a worker strike, effectively shut down the school. Still, trustees and administrators treated protestors with deference. After four days, the chairman of the board of trustees addressed the Silent Vigil (offering minimal concessions) and joined the group in singing “We Shall Overcome.”    

Ten months later, approximately 50 members of the Duke AAS occupied the registrar’s and bursar’s office on the first floor of Duke’s main administration building, presenting the university with a list of 10 demands. Within an hour, senior leaders decided that the protestors would be given one hour to vacate. If they failed to do so, they would be declared “trespassers” and the police would be summoned to campus to eject them, using force if necessary. Durham County and State Police assembled in Duke Gardens and were brought on to campus around 5:30 p.m. Although the Black students subsequently departed the administration building voluntarily, the police could not be withdrawn and a police riot on the main quadrangle ensued.

 How did university administrators resist change, even while claiming to support many of the issues and demands raised by the students?

Most fundamental was the belief that Black students should be grateful for the chance to attend Duke and that they should simply aspire to “fit in.” Among the arguments “progressive” administrators used to resist change was “gradualism” (change takes time),  pragmatism (donors will stop donating), and “reverse discrimination” (accommodations to address the distinctive needs of Black students represent discrimination against white people). Once activism emerged, students were seen as controlled by outside forces. Throughout, administrators insisted that change could only come through the “proper channels.” This meant dealing with a layered committee process unable to cut through red tape.

 What lessons are there today for students, faculty and others seeking racial change at HWCUs, and what lessons are there for administrators, trustees and faculty who profess support for these anti-racism efforts?     

Because of the persistence of historic racial attitudes, a multi-layered and decentralized decision-making process, reflexive deference to alumni and donors, and limited resources, it is exceedingly difficult for HWCUs to change from within. Systemic racial change is possible only where there is sustained external pressure and when leaders possess a moral commitment to racial justice and a willingness to reallocate resources to support new priorities. While each institution will need to find its own pathway to racial change, all will need to expend the same amount of time, energy, money and other finite resources that they currently deployed to address other “existential” objectives. Duke, like other schools, reinvented itself in a matter of weeks to face the Covid crisis. A similar level of focus and investment over a substantial period of time is needed to dismantle systemic racism at the school.

Read the introduction to Point of Reckoning for free and save 30% on the book using coupon code E21SEGAL.

New Books in February

Winter is a great time to curl up with a good book. In February we have notable titles in media studies, critical race studies, and more!

Universal Tonality Jazz critic and historian Cisco Bradley tells the story of the life and music of bassist and composer William Parker in Universal Tonality, which documents fifty years of the monumental figure’s life in free jazz. Be sure to join us for a live online event featuring Bradley, Parker, Anthony Reed, and Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker on February 19.

Drawing on interviews with industry workers from MTV programs such as The Real World and Teen Mom, Amanda Ann Klein in Millennials Killed the Video Star examines the historical, cultural, and industrial factors leading to MTV’s shift away from music videos to reality programming in the early 2000s and 2010s.

Lauren Steimer’s Experts in Action examines how Hong Kong-influenced action movie aesthetics and stunt techniques have been taken up, imitated, and reinvented in other locations and production contexts around the globe.

Marina Peterson traces entanglements of environmental noise, atmosphere, sense, and matter that cohere in and through encounters with airport noise at Los Angeles International Airport since the 1960s, in Atmospheric Noise, showing how noise is central to how we know, feel, and think atmospherically.

Point of ReckoningTheodore D. Segal’s Point of Reckoning narrates the fraught and contested fight for racial justice at Duke University—which accepted its first black undergraduates in 1963—to tell both a local and national story about the challenges that historically white colleges and universities throughout the country continue to face. Catch Segal at two online events this month: on February 10, sponsored by the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies, and on February 24, sponsored by the Duke Alumni Association.

Kevin Quashie in Black Aliveness, or a Poetics of Being analyzes texts by of Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Evie Shockley, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others to argue for a black aliveness that is disarticulated from antiblackness and which provides the basis for the imagination and creation of a black world.

Throughout The Powers of Dignity Nick Bromell examines how Frederick Douglass forged a distinctively black political philosophy out of his experiences as an enslaved and later nominally free man in ways that challenge Anglo-Continental traditions of political thought.

Black UtopiasEngaging with the work of Black musicians, writers, and women mystics, Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias takes up the concept of utopia as an occasion to explore new states of being, doing, and imagining in Black culture. You can catch Brown’s first online event this Thursday, February 4.

Samantha A. Noël investigates how Black Caribbean and American artists of the early twentieth century responded to and challenged colonial and other hegemonic regimes through tropicalist representation in Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism.

Candace Fujikane draws upon Hawaiian legends about the land and water and their impact upon Native Hawai‘ian struggles in Mapping Abundance for a Planetary Future to argue that Native economies of abundance provide a foundation for collective work against climate change.

A time of YouthA Time of Youth brings together 89 of the more than 2000 photographs William Gedney took in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood between October, 1966 and January, 1967, documenting the restless and intertwined lives of the disenchanted youth who flocked to what became the epicenter of 1960s counterculture.

In Coed Revolution Chelsea Szendi Schieder examines the campus-based New Left in Japan by exploring the significance of women’s participation in the protest movements of the 1960s.

Ma Vang examines the experiences of Hmong refugees who migrated to the United States following the secret war in Laos (1961–1975) to theorize “History on the Run” as a framework for understanding refugee histories, in particular those of the Hmong.

Empire's MistressVernadette Vicuña Gonzalez follows the life of Filipina vaudeville and film actress Isabel Rosario Cooper to explore the contours of empire as experienced on the scale of personal relationships in Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper, taking us much deeper into her life story than merely her role as the mistress of General Douglas MacArthur.

Jonathan Beller traces the history of the commodification of information and the financialization of everyday life in The World Computer, showing how contemporary capitalism is based in algorithms and the quantification of value that intensify social inequality.

In The Charismatic Gymnasium, Maria José A. de Abreu examines the conservative Charismatic Catholic movement in contemporary urban Brazil to rethink the relationship between theology, the body, and neoliberal governance, showing how it works to produce subjects who are complicit with Brazilian neoliberalism.

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Farewell to Lesley Stern

lesley-stern-200x200We are sorry to learn of the death of Lesley Stern, author, most recently, of Diary of a Detour. Her editor, Ken Wissoker, says, “Lesley Stern was a singular intellectual presence, brilliant and funny.  That wit and insight came through in every literary genre. It was a huge privilege to work with her on this last book, Diary of a Detour, where her spirit will live on.”

Stern taught in a number of universities around the globe (including at the University of Zimbabwe; Glasgow University; La Trobe and Murdoch Universities; The University of New South Wales; and University of California, Irvine) before moving to University of California, San Diego in 2000, where she was Professor of Visual Arts until 2013. She was the author of Dead and Alive: The Body as Cinematic Thing, The Smoking Book and The Scorsese Connection, and co-editor of Falling For You: Essays on Cinema and Performance.

Diary of a DetourDiary of a Detour is Stern’s memoir of living with the chronic lymphocytic leukemia that eventually led to her death. She chronicles the fears and daily experience of coming to grips with an incurable form of cancer by describing the dramas and delving into the science. Poet Eileen Myles called it “the most pleasurable cancer book imaginable.”

We invite you to watch the online celebration of Lesley Stern’s book as a way to remember her life and work. It features readings by Stern, Donna Haraway and Eileen Myles, and a Q&A moderated by Lisa Cartwright.

New Books in January

If you made a New Year’s resolution to read more, this month we have some great new books to help achieve your goals. Happy New Year!

The future of FalloutJoseph Masco examines the psychosocial, material, and affective consequences of the advent of nuclear weapons, the Cold War security state, climate change on contemporary US democratic practices and public imaginaries in The Future of Fallout, and Other Episodes in Radioactive World-Making.

Andrew Bickford analyzes the US military’s attempts to design performance enhancement technologies and create pharmacological “supersoldiers” capable of becoming ever more lethal while withstanding various forms of extreme trauma in Chemical Heroes.

Drawing on ethnographic research in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, Christopher Harker in Spacing Debt examines how Israel’s use of debt to keep Palestinians economically unstable is a form of slow colonial violence embedded into the everyday lives of citizens.

Whites are the Enemies of Heaven With The Whites are the Enemies of Heaven, Mark W. Driscoll examines Western imperialism in East Asia throughout the nineteenth century and the devastating effects of what he calls climate caucasianism—the West’s racialized pursuit of capital at the expense of people of color, women, and the environment.

In Dear Science and Other Stories Katherine McKittrick presents a creative and rigorous study of black and anticolonial methodologies, exploring how narratives of imprecision and relationality interrupt knowledge systems that seek to observe, index, know, and discipline blackness.

Christopher Freeburg’s Counterlife challenges the imperative to study black social life and slavery and its aftereffects through the lenses of freedom, agency, and domination and instead examines how enslaved Africans created meaning through spirituality, thought, and artistic creativity separate and alongside concerns about freedom.

emancipations daughtersRiché Richardson in Emancipation’s Daughters examines how five iconic black women—Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé—defy racial stereotypes and construct new national narratives of black womanhood in the United States.

Lingzhen Wang examines the work of Chinese women filmmakers of the Mao and post-Mao eras in Revisiting Women’s Cinema to theorize socialist and postsocialist feminism, mainstream culture, and women’s cinema in modern China.

Kaiama L. Glover examines Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean literature whose female protagonists enact practices of freedom that privilege the self, challenge the prioritization of the community over the individual, and refuse masculinist discourses of postcolonial nation building in A Regarded Self.

The Small Book of Hip ChecksErica Rand uses multiple meanings of hip check—an athlete using their hip to throw an opponent off balance and the inspection of racialized gender—to consider the workings of queer gender, race, and writing in the The Small Book of Hip Checks.

Drawing from ethnographic work with queer activist groups in contemporary Turkey, Evren Savcı’s Queer in Translation explores how Western LGBT politics are translated and reworked there in ways that generate new spaces for resistance and solidarity.

Anthony Reed takes the recorded collaborations between African American poets and musicians such as Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Cecil Taylor, and Charles Mingus to trace the overlaps between experimental music and poetry and the ways in which intellectuals, poets, and musicians define black sound as a radical aesthetic practice in Soundworks.

The Bruce B. Lawrence Reader assembles over two dozen selections of writing by leading scholar of Islam Bruce B. Lawrence which range from analyses of premodern and modern Islamic discourses, practices, and institutions to methodological and theoretical reflections on the study of religion.

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New Books in December

As we close out 2020, check out our new December titles.

interimperialityWeaving together feminist, decolonial, and dialectical theory, Laura Doyle theorizes the co-emergence of empires, institutions, language regimes, stratified economies, and literary cultures over the longue durée in Inter-imperiality.

Prathama Banerjee moves beyond postcolonial and decolonial critiques of European political philosophy in Elementary Aspects of the Political to rethink modern conceptions of “the political” from the perspective of Indian and Bengali practices and philosophies from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

the colonizing self

Hagar Kotef in The Colonizing Self explores the cultural, political, spatial, and theoretical mechanisms that enable people and nations to settle on the ruins of other people’s homes, showing how settler-colonial violence becomes inseparable from one’s sense of self.

Bakirathi Mani examines the visual and affective relationships between South Asian diasporic viewers, artists, and photographic representations of immigrant subjects in Unseeing Empire, showing how empire continues to haunt South Asian American visual cultures.

Claiming Union WidowhoodBrandi Clay Brimmer analyzes the US pension system from the perspective of poor black women in the period before, during, and after the Civil War in Claiming Union Widowhood; outlining the struggles of mothers, wives, and widows of black Union soldiers to claim rights in the face of unjust legislation.

Weaving together the black radical tradition with Caribbean and Latinx performance, cinema, music, and literature, Ren Ellis Neyra in The Cry of the Senses highlights the ways Latinx and Caribbean sonic practices challenge antiblack, colonial, post-Enlightenment, and humanist epistemologies.

In Utopian Ruins, Jie Li traces the creation, preservation, and elision of memories about China’s Mao era by envisioning a virtual museum that reckons with both its utopian yearnings and cataclysmic reverberations.

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New Titles in Women’s Studies

Every year we look forward to meeting authors in person at the NWSA Annual Meeting, and we are sad to be missing out on that this year. We know that many of you look forward to stocking up on new books at special discounts at our conferences, so we are pleased to extend a 50% discount on all in-stock books and journal issues with coupon code NWSA20 until November 23, 2020.

View our Women’s Studies catalog below for a complete list of all our newest titles in women, gender, and sexuality studies and across disciplines. You can also explore all of our books and journals in the field on dukeupress.edu. And although you cannot join us in the booth this year, you can listen to a number of our authors discuss their books through our In Conversation series on our YouTube channel.

Editor Elizabeth Ault has a message for everyone who would have attended NWSA this year, with her recommendations of the latest books in women, gender, and sexuality studies.

Editor Elizabeth Ault

Dear NWSA,

I was so looking forward to gathering with you all in the greatest city in the world, Minneapolis, this fall, but it’s not to be. I’m sending solidarity to all the folks who have been doing incredible organizing work there for years before the murder of George Floyd (#justiceforfonglee, #justiceforjamarclarke, #ceceisfree, #cecetaughtme #justiceforphilandocastile) and continue to provide networks of care and support every dang day. 

I am so excited to be in conversation with y’all about the feminist work in Black studies, disability studies, geography, trans studies, queer theory, history, and more that has its home at NWSA. Please sign up for office hours to discuss your work with me here

In the meantime, I know many of you are shopping the sale. Here are some crucial feminist texts that would never have made it to 50% off day in the booth–and you can get them shipped directly to you for 50% off from our website!!!  You’ll see important strands of Black feminist thought and queer theory throughout these books, so I’ve tried to organize them more by method and topic to help you find what you’re looking for. 

I’m writing this in late October and you’ll be reading it on the other side of whatever happens on November 3. Regardless, I’m confident these books have important wisdom to offer us as we move through this extraordinarily painful year, fortified by the work of organizers in Minneapolis and around the world, and by these thinkers and writers. They’re all helping us to imagine the world we want to live in and work to make it possible.

Jih-Fei Cheng, Alex Juhasz, and Nishant Shahani’s AIDS and the Distribution of Crises comes directly out of that scholarly/activist nexus, bringing together insights from a range of fields and positions about the ongoing viral crises that COVID-19 cratered into this winter. Sima Shakhsari’s book The Politics of Rightful Killing looks at transnational online networks of writers and activists to consider how Iranians in the diaspora and Iran itself thought about reconstituting democracy. Jillian Hernandez’s Aesthetics of Excess is right there too, drawing on her work with Black and Latina girls in Women on The Rise in Miami.

Writing in Space

Alongside the amazing art Jillian and her interlocutors at WOTR created, much of which is included in full color in the book, we have some really amazing feminist art books out right now. Lorraine O’Grady’s work was at the center of the mind-blowing, pathbreaking We Wanted a Revolution show at the Brooklyn Museum a few years back, and now she has her own solo show there, accompanied by this new book of her writings about art practice and her vision for a Black feminist art world, Writing in Space. Maya Stovall has been performing and showing Liquor Store Theatre, a Detroit-based art and performance project for several years; her book by the same name considers the project as an ethnographic one reimagining what dispossessed neighborhoods in Detroit might still play host to. Bakirathi Mani’s new book, Unseeing Empire, centers work by South Asian women artists Annu Matthew, Seher Shah, and Gauri Gill to consider how empire continues to haunt South Asian desires for representation and representability.

978-1-4780-0663-3But it’s not just visual arts that are important – feminist approaches to music also play a big role on this list, with books by Maureen Mahon, Shana Redmond, Ren Ellis Neyra, and Xavier Livermon centering the sonic.

And Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Dub is a work of art–no less than an oracle for our times. 

Another oracular work newly available is Jose Munoz’s posthumous Sense of Brown. This book is deep and lasting and Jose’s influence and importance is so clear and undeniable. More theoretical work on this list alongside Jose’s is Cressida Heyes’s book Anaesthetics of Existence, which is really speaking to me as this year continues to take and take. It’s a feminist phenomenology for this moment. Other books theorizing embodiment here include Neetu Khanna’s Visceral Logics of Decolonization, and Naked Agency, in which author Naminata Diabate considers women’s naked protests across Africa and the diaspora as a weighty, powerful form of vulnerable resistance.

naked agency

Diabate’s work is embedded in a long history of such protests–new feminist history work from Brandi Brimmer, Francoise Verges, and Lynn Thomas provides important tools for understanding how we got here, and how things could be different. 

And feminist ethnography has a strong presence on this list too, with nuanced and sensitive accounts of relationality and care in everyday life from Abigail Dumes, Saiba Varma, and Marilyn Strathern

information activism
Click cover image for In Conversation talk with McKinney!

Relations, the topic of Strathern’s capacious theorization, are also at the foundation of Brigitte Fielder’s rethinking of kinship and race. Her book is part of a strong list in queer and feminist cultural and literary studies that includes new books from Jack Halberstam (important queer theory, yes, but also important Kate Bush content!), Bo Ruberg (whose new book series is accepting proposals), Gillian Harkins (why are you still watching To Catch a Predator? I mean, you won’t after reading this book), Cait McKinney (the book we fondly refer to as “how lesbians invented the internet”), Erica Fretwell (She’ll make you care about The Yellow Wallpaper again, through centering the role of SMELL of all things), and Sam Pinto (the definitive take on Sarah Baartman and Sally Hemings that you have been waiting for!!).

That’s a lot of books! There’s so much richness and brilliance here. I’m excited to hear what you think about these books and how they’re informing your own work on twitter and in my office hours. In the meantime, keep well.

If you were hoping to connect with Elizabeth Ault or another of our editors about your book project at NWSA, please reach out to them by email. See our editors’ specialties and contact information here and our online submissions guidelines here.

And don’t forget about our great journals in gender studies, like Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism; the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies; Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies; differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies; GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, and TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. If you don’t have access through your library, ask them to subscribe, pick up a personal subscription, or add a special issue to your sale order!

New Books in November

November is here, and even though we may have the US election and the end of the semester on our minds, there are still new books to celebrate. Check out our November releases. They should all be out before the end of our 50% off sale on November 23, so be sure to check the website frequently. Use coupon code FALL2020 to save.

AnimaliaAnimalia: An Anti-Imperial Bestiary for Our Times is a unique new collection edited by Antoinette Burton and Renisa Mawani. The contributors analyze twenty-six animals—domestic, feral, predatory, and mythical—whose relationship to imperial authorities and settler colonists reveals how the presumed racial supremacy of Europeans underwrote the history of Western imperialism.

In Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment, Jillian Hernandez examines how cultural discourses of aesthetic value racialize the bodies of women and girls of color by Analyzing the personal clothing, makeup, and hairstyles of working-class Black and Latina girls.

Liquor Store TheatreIn Liquor Store Theatre, artist and anthropologist Maya Stovall uses her Liquor Store Theatre conceptual art project—in which she danced near her Detroit neighborhood’s liquor stores as a way to start conversations with her neighbors—as a point of departure for understanding everyday life in Detroit and the possibilities for ethnographic research, art, and knowledge creation.

Mimi Sheller’s Island Futures: Caribbean Survival in the Anthropocene delves into the ecological crises and reconstruction challenges affecting the entire Caribbean region, showing how vulnerability to ecological collapse and the quest for a “just recovery” in the Caribbean emerge from specific transnational political, economic, and cultural dynamics.

Militarized Global ApartheidCatherine Besteman offers a sweeping theorization of the ways in which countries from the global North are reproducing South Africa’s apartheid system on a worldwide scale to control the mobility and labor of people from the global South in her new book Militarized Global Apartheid.

In Biopolitics of the More-Than-Human: Forensic Ecologies of Violence, Joseph Pugliese examines the concept of the biopolitical through a nonanthropocentric lens, arguing that more-than-human entities—from soil and orchards to animals and water—are actors and agents in their own right with legitimate claims to justice.

For a Pragmatics of the UselessFor a Pragmatics of the Useless by Erin Manning draws on the radical black tradition, process philosophy, and Felix Guattari’s schizoanalysis to explore the links between neurotypicality, whiteness, and black life.

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