More Than One History

Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam during their 1955 trial

So here’s the problem. When we talk about history, we usually refer to one particular story, and one particular point of view. In 2021, that’s woefully inadequate, but the additional material makes history nearly impossible to teach within the confines of a well-organized school curriculum. In 2015, TIME Magazine wrote about “25 Moments That Changed America.” When I browsed the article, I wanted to know more about all of those moments. For example, one paragraph in the article is entitled, “Emmett Till Is Murdered (Aug. 28, 1955)” It’s easy to list the basic facts, and some of them are probably true, but there’s a lot we still don’t know about the story, the people involved, and precisely what happened in and immediately outside Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Mississippi. And in order to understand the story and its related circumstances, we ought to know more about Carolyn Bryant, and her husband Roy, and Roy’s half-brother, John W. Milam, and the other people involved. It’s a dreadful story, but its importance is diminished when it is simplified. And yet, that’s precisely what teachers must do because they are not likely to spend a full week on the Emmett Till story. As a result, it’s just one more story, one more starting point for the Civil Rights movement in the United States, one more thing for students to remember until the test passes, one more distant memory that’s mostly forgotten when the school year ends.

Here in 2021, we’re attempting to add context to achieve a more truthful, more complete telling of history. In the case of a new book called FOUR HUNDRED SOULS: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, I don’t recall reading anything about Emmett Till, and I don’t see his name in the index. That doesn’t mean his story is not important. Instead, it suggests that there are just too many stories to tell–and the editors determined that 395 pages of storytelling was as much as even the most interested readers could bear. And so, we’re reminded about just how selective the teaching of history will always be.

This version of history takes it slow, and keeps things fairly simple: there’s a brief essay about a particular era, event, trend, group or person, each written by a notable historian or cultural expert, and each one is a well-presented article. For the first hundred or two hundred pages, it’s a mosaic, a puzzle with pieces more and less familiar. We begin in the era of 1619-1624 with “Arrival” by Nikole Hannah-Jones (her own book about the 1619 project is forthcoming in November; her own story is now part of the narrative as she chose to work at Howard University, an HSBC, instead of the University of North Carolina after some discomfort related to the tenure process). She talks about the ship, The White Lion, which takes its place in history beside The Mayflower. I’m interested; I want to know more. A student might be curious, too. How much time should a teacher devote to these ships and a comparison between them? Context…we need to return to Africa to begin the story. Now, we’re in the remnants of African kingdoms and the kidnapping of Mandinka, Wolof, Pual, Hausa and other people from the remnants of the Ghana, Mail and Songhay kingdoms. Now, I’m beginning to realize how little I know. I have heard of these tribes–if that’s the correct term–but I don’t know much about them. And I know something about the Europeans who perpetrated those kidnappings, but my details are flimsy. And I need a map. Not one map, but an animated magical map that allows me to hear the words, see the eyes and the faces of the people involved–not groups of people but individuals who fought with their lives, who thought so little of the locals as to treat them as goods to be traded and sold.

Quickly, the location shifts to the American colonies, and the kidnapped people are forced to do labor without little if any meaningful compensation. They are deprived of rights, but they form families, and build new lives. There are slave markets, slave codes, slave rebellions. This part of the story is not often told, not in much detail beyond abusive and sexually active slaveholders and unfair practices. There were full lives here, and we get a glimpse, but again, I want more. I want an entire book, historical fiction where historical fact is unavailable, about the lives of these people and how they interacted within the confines of the plantation, the town, the state, the nation.

But we need to keep moving. We touch upon the sometimes-unexpected, such as a few pages about “Queer Sexuality” by Kiese Laymon, but by the halfway mark, the Civil War is over, and a few pages later, we’re on to Plessy v. Ferguson. Twenty pages later, we’re celebrating the Harlem Renaissance. Argh! We need to slow this down! I’m grabbing bits and pieces of a story that must go deeper and wider.

And then, I think of myself, in a parallel life, as a high school Social Studies teacher, who desperately wants the students to know and understand these stories. I now have a spectacular resource in my hands by some of the best-credentialed historical storytellers in the whole U.S.A., but the tool is insufficient to the task.

There is the generally accepted history of the United States of America, but it includes only a small portion of what I’ve read in this book. And there are emerging stories that also need to be told–the Japanese perspective on the World War II internment camps, for example–and the perspectives of those in power who were so uncertain about the decisions they were making, and the exploitative practices of non-Japanese who took over their neighbors’ farms, homes and businesses without compensation. And then, there’s this whole other story–which also needs to be told–about the people who came from Africa, not from Europe, and lived an entirely different reality during the 400 years of U.S. history. And then, there is the story of the people who lived here in the first place, the ones that the Europeans massacred in various ways, hundreds of tribal groups whose parallel lives over these same 400 years are no less significant.

I want to know the whole story, or as much of it as possible, but when I read an excellent survey, a community history as good and solid and inspired and sad and uplifting as this one, I see a challenge. How do we teach our children, or how do they learn, about the complicated story of the past 400 years? Do some of them choose a single path, say, through African American history to the exclusion of Japanese American history? Or do we take bits and bytes of the African and American stories, but ignore the Vietnamese or Cuban stories? Or do we attempt to tell all of the stories–pouring so much information down the throats of our poor students that they are bound to remember nothing at all, and pray for the history lessons to end? Or, do we guide them in some other way? Do we opt for “yes, we sometimes mistreat some people,” which reduces every story to an unimportant bump in the road? Or do we encourage some other approach, one that allows a student, or several students, to collectively study and tell the story of Emmett Till so it can be shared with others, not only in their own class or their own school, but with other students around the world–and the adults, too? That’s the deep dark secret here–children are beginning to learn history with context and connection, but adults were never taught that way. This book is a start, and for a few thousand adults who buy and read the book, it’s a step in the right direction. But I want much more.

A Clever New Easel

As the warmer weather approaches in my part of the world, I like to spend the occasional afternoon painting–not with wet paints, but with a portable collection of pastels. I carry them in a backpack, along with charcoal, a small Leatherman multi-tool, a sheet of sanded paper taped to a lightweight piece of masonite, and a few other supplies.

A portable easel completes the portable setup–that, and a small table or other surface to support a flat box of pastels. So far, the best solution has been a French Easel. There are two types of French Easel–one is smaller, lighter and a bit less stable. The other is larger, but it’s heavier, and a bit of a bundle when carrying the backpack. FYI, a French easel combines a wooden box and drawer with a foldable wooden tripod.

Many artists now use a photographer’s tripod to support a pochade–a small wooden box that contains paints, supplies and an upright surface to support the canvas, or, as with my setup, the masonite-paper combination. This is a good idea, but the emphasis is always on the box, not on the surface. By shifting emphasis from box to painting area, a tiny company called LederEasel has developed something fresh and new.

To begin, you will need a sturdy tripod, and you’ll need to make certain that the legs are sufficiently long to bring the painting surface up to, roughly, your shoulders. The tripod’s “maximum height,” often listed in the internet specifications, ought to be about as high as your nose. Tripods are built with a center mast that rises above the legs, but it’s less sturdy under real world conditions of wind and aggressively drawing onto the surface. There are hundreds of tripods available. As a starting place, I would check on Benro, a manufacturer that offers reasonable prices, good built quality, durability, and a wide range of options. You’ll want a “ball head” on the top of the tripod, which allows adjustments in many possible directions.

Back to LederEasel. It comes in two pieces that attach to the tripod. The top piece is a block of wood with several durable metal fasteners. When slotted, twisted, and unscrewed into place, this perpendicular holds the top of the canvas or drawing surface. A similar bottom piece, also made of wood and metal, secures at the bottom, and supports the canvas or drawing surface. The two pieces connect, essentially creating H turned 90 degrees.

On the first warm day of the season, I took my tripod, in a bag, and a LederEasel, in another bag (provided), and set the whole thing up, for the first time, in less than five minutes (this is about as long as it takes me to set up my French easel). The setup is elegant, well-thought-out, and works very well.

There are two holes drilled into the bottom piece, and two metal dowels provided. When the dowels are inserted into the holes, they provide a reasonably secure ledge for a large flat box of pastels, essentially a desk. I’ve written about the Easel Butler in the past–this is a similar idea.

This is a young company, but they’ve already developed their first accessory: the Easel Caddy, which includes a pair of metal rings and a cloth brush bag that attaches to a brush separator via several velcro tabs. This is not as well-considered: the metal rings should be two connectible pieces so they are able to fit into the bag, and the brush bag, although clever, is a bit cumbersome. Still, they do work in the field.

This is a new invention, so I am sure comments and criticisms are welcome. I noticed that the LederEasel was not completely stable on the tripod, but I was able to correct the problem in the field with materials I found in the LederEasel bag. Each of the wood pieces comes with a small velcro strap. By connecting two straps together (via their velcro connectors), then looping them to connect the bottom wooden piece to the tripod’s center mast, I was able to correct the instability.

One condition would be invisible to acrylic or oil painters, but problematic for pastel painters. For pastel, the drawing surface must be slightly angled so the top is closer to the artist; this allows the pastel dust to fall on the ground, not on the painting. The way the LederEasel is constructed, and the way it sits on the easel, it is difficult to angle the drawing surface. I was able to make an adequate adjustment, but further flexibility is certainly desireable for pastel painters in the field.

This is a good product from a good supplier, and I wish them the best of success.

After I published the article, Ed Leder, who designed and sells the easel, offered these useful comments and clarifications:

I would like to add a few comments in response to your review written about my LederEasel products.

The issue of not being able to tilt a canvas or panel so the top is closer to the painter is a limitation of using a ball head tripod attachment and not a design flaw of the easel. There is a limit to the degree of tilt built into ball heads so this type may not be best suited for the pastel painter. A pan and tilt tripod will allow for side to side and up-down adjustability greater than 90 degrees to the ground plane which will resolve the issue for vertical tilting. After providing Howard the setup for his review I made a small addition that was not included at that time. The connection where the two tubes are joined together had a small amount of play so I added a rubber O-ring between the mating parts ( they break down for compact storage and are held together by a spring button) which has eliminated any movement when the tubes are joined.

The EaselCaddy came about after receiving requests for a compact fixture to hold brushes and thinner that would work in addition to my easel setup. The bag that the LederEasel comes in was not meant to accommodate anything more as it was the only product at the time. Now that I have the EaselCaddy added to my products, I intend to enlarge the bag in a future order for those that wish to store/carry everything in one place.

There are a few steps in setting up the EaselCaddy but once assembled, one shouldn’t need to do it again. The materials used to keep it lightweight and compact dictated the design and assembly choices I made. Further information can be found on my website www.ledereasel.com and I post a few tips and how-to’s on Instagram which address questions I receive.I appreciate my products being mentioned on this site and hope those interested in painting are inspired by this report.

Thanks,

Ed Leder

This Is All Wrong!

We should not wait for a 16 year old to travel across the ocean in a small boat in order to be heard.

We should allow our local, state, national, international and business leaders to make terrible decisions that cause global catastrophe.

We are not paying attention to a crisis. Our news mostly ignores the most important story on earth. Our schools teach it in a haphazard way, if at all. Our parents, our elders do not understand what is happening so they cannot and do not share the wisdom they do not possess.

So it falls to Greta Thunberg, and now, millions of children inspired by her, to sacrifice precious childhood and adolescence because adults have failed their generation.

Let’s not become distracted. Let’s focus on what Greta is telling us. Let’s support the next generation instead of destroying their future.

Please pay attention. We’re all busy, but that excuse is no longer an acceptable response. Doing nothing is unacceptable.

Spending five minutes with Greta is the most important thing you can do right now. And if you have already seen her brief statement to the U.N., make sure to share this with someone who may be distracted by less important issues. This one matters.

#gretathunberg

He, and They, but Mostly, Babe

There is always a longer story. Often, more than one. Pull one strand and three stories become visible.

The first one begins begins in 1890 when Arthur Stanley Jefferson is born into a noted theatrical family in Ulverston, a market town in Cumbria, which is located north of England’s second largest city, Manchester. The family controlled the Metropole Theatre in Glasgow. Before he was 16 years old, the boy was occasionally performing onstage. By the time he was twenty, the young actor was understudying for an actor he would always admire, Charlie Chaplin. An American tour followed, and he decided to relocate. Soon, he was making movies with the first of what would become many wives. By 1925–by now, he was 35 years old–he was calling himself Stan Laurel, and working as a writer/director for Hal Roach Studios (also known for the Our Gang comedies). Hardly famous, Stan Laurel’s involvement in dozens of films (all two-reelers, each about 20 minutes long), with a long resume of stage performance, with a distinct talent for comedy, might have taken him a long way as he matured along with the growing business of motion pictures. We’ll pick up on that story shortly.

The second story begins two years after Stan Laurel was born, in 1892, this time in Harlem, Georgia, then in Milledgeville, not far from Macon. Again, a show business family of sorts. Norvell Hardy sang locally, and operated a movie theater. By age 21, he (most often, “Babe,” less often “Oliver”) was working in Florida for Lubin Motion Pictures (one of the largest early movie companies) as a production and script assistant. A year later, Oliver Hardy made his first film, and more than 200 short films followed. When Florida’s film industry failed, he and his wife (again, many wives in Babe’s story, too), and ended up at the Hal Roach studio.

When Hal Roach puts the two actors together, the third story begins in 1927 with two-reelers. Laurel & Hardy are among the few silent film stars who built even-more-successful careers in full-length features with sound. Stan is in his glory as head writer and creative lead–he develops the gags, and simply falls in love with the popular confection known as Laurel & Hardy. Babe is more of a talented actor who enjoys the lifestyle–including gambling, women, and so on–but when he on set, he is the consummate professional.

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Both live a life consumed by failed relationships with women, and money issues (both closely related). They are among Hollywood’s biggest stars, but they are contract players with little economic leverage. Each lives with his own demons.

At times, they are not sure whether they even like one another, but there is no question about whether they love one another. The story of Laurel & Hardy is the story of one of the great 20th century friendships, often tested by the ups and downs of a career that continued into the 1950s.

That’s when the end of the third story picks up, not in real life, but as a motion picture. It’s called Stan & Ollie (2018). This chapter begins while Laurel & Hardy are at the peak of their creative endeavors at the Roach studio, and provides several winning examples of the two making movies. There are hints of financial troubles and struggles with producer Hal Roach, and these advance the plot to a less-than-stellar start of a tour of England in the 1953. As they wait for a British movie producer (“Miffin,” often called “Muffin” by these silly guys) to green light a feature based upon Robin Hood (which is never made), they tour to modest audiences that are only partially filled. It’s depressing, a too-close look at what happens after a star is no longer a star. Still, the show must go on, even if it requires free promotional appearances to get their names out (most people seem to think they’ve retired, but they cannot because past divorce settlements must be paid). Somehow, the promo dates turn things around, and suddenly, they are filling the biggest theaters. But Ollie’s health is beginning to fail.

shareThe magic of Stan & Ollie is presented with ideal timing and winning personality by John C. Reilly (in a fat suit), and British comedian Steve Coogan (with a bit of prosthetic as well, most to shape his chin). They do marvelous work with several of the funniest bits, including a “double door” routine at an onstage railroad station that demonstrates Stan’s spectacular control over coming timing.

Along the way, we gain some insight into Stan’s creative mind, his insecurities about his relationship with Babe, the decisions never made or made for the wrong reasons, the wives, the financial mess he keeps getting himself into (as Babe does the same), the stormy relationship with Hal Roach, who seems to be getting rich on the backs of their work. And then, it ends. Babe dies. Stan continues writing scripts for Laurel & Hardy in a Los Angeles apartment because he cannot imagine any better way to spend his days.

Every good show business story demands a fair amount of imaginative leeway. So, too, is the case with he. Who’s “he?” He is Stan Laurel, unsure what remains of Arthur Stanley Jefferson, and the young man who was once nearly on par with the great Charlie Chaplin. He is Stan Laurel who never could convince Babe to leave the Roach studio so they could set up their studio and make the fortune to which they were so deeply entitled. He is a sad man who experienced so much happiness, fame, and if not fortune, so much pleasure during the heights of his creative activities. He made magic.

s-l640He is the title of a novel–not a biography, but a novel that seems a lot like a biography but allows itself ample opportunity to explore what Stan was probably thinking and why. At first, author John Connolly’s idea for a book seems too ambitious, too flaky, too far removed from reality, too close to reality. And then, half the book is passed. Embellished by moving images of Steve Coogan portraying Stan Laurel, illuminated by watching Harold Lloyd, Chaplin and especially Buster Keaton on YouTube (another opportunity for none of them to get paid for their work), Stan takes shape as more than part of a famous show business duo. He becomes a whole person, powerful in his way, and deeply wounded, too.

The wound runs deep. There is resentment–why could Chaplin succeed in ways that he could not–why was Roach so unfair–how did Laurel & Hardy lose their careers–how did they manage to go so low as to play to small unfilled houses in 1953–but in the end, none of that stays in his mind for too long. When he looks out the window, and watches the ocean–he does that a lot in his later years, at least according to Connolly, he thinks only of Babe.

They were swell together.

And he wants nothing more than to work a gag with Babe for eternity.

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A Parisian History in Color

sennelier_couvertureIn Paris, on the Quai Voltaire, amidst antique dealers of the highest order, along the left bank of the Seine, directly across the river from the famous Louvre museum, there is a shop.

Sennelier-Interieur-In 1887, or, perhaps, 1888, the shop was nearly bankrupt. With the sale, former shop owner M. Prevost, makes dreams come true. The new owner, Gustave Sennelier, always hoped to own a shop where he could manufacture and sell his own artist’s pigments. And so, the shop became known by the sign visible to all of Paris, Sennelier: Couleurs Pour Artistes.

This was an especially exciting time to be selling colors and working with artists in Paris. The impressionists enjoyed their first successful group show in Paris in 1886.  Painters were experimenting with color and light, trying new formulas and new ideas, and often relied upon the good advice of the chemists who were emerging as colorists. (Previously, pigments were sold in pharmacies as a sideline; art supply stores were still a relatively new idea.) As chemistry and art intertwine, artists now regarded as legend were working professionals who purchased their supplies from Sennelier. Cezanne was one of many in Paris who frequented the shop; others included Pierre Bonnard, Robert Delauney, and Pablo Picasso.

Seeking new products and new opportunities, Sennelier’s pigments found popular use for batik (the pigmentation of decorative fabrics), painting on porcelain, and in new formulations for artists, including, for example, new oil pastels. “Picasso adopted it immediately. He asked for it in 48 colors of which–Picasso’s grey period required it–10 were shades of grey, a heresy in the age of colors.” Artists used the new oil pastels to start an oil painting, allowing the fluidity and ease of sketching onto the canvas. Then, the painting would be completed in a classical oil painting style.

facade-quai-GFThe Sennelier family has passed knowledge, chemistry, color sense and business sense from generation to generation. In a sense, the new book, Sennelier: A History in Color by Pascale Richard, is a family biography. As with the Parisian landscape, the family is part of a bolder story: the powerful relationship between science (chemistry) and a tremendous assortment of artistic accomplishments. The book is filled with full-page images of Jackson Pollack paintings and store shelves filled with pigments; photos of antique paint tubes and pastel drawings by Edgar Degas; spectacular old city scape photos of the old shop and inside the old lab and photos of the shop today, a place that hasn’t changed much in a century. If you are planning a visit to the Louvre, do find the time to cross the Seine, make the left turn, follow the classic old buildings until you reach number 3 Quai Voltaire. At the least, you will buy a notebook or a sketchbook (Picasso bought lots of them), and perhaps you will be persuaded to buy a set of Sennelier pastels, which are among the finest in the world, or oils or watercolors, or artist’s pads. You can buy some, or even most, of this merchandise in many U.S. art supply stores, but it’s not the same experience. There is magic in the old shop, magic that is so loving transported into book format.

dan

Daniel Greene is one of my favorite artists. Click on the picture to explore his spectacular work.

It is a joy filled story: the idea of bringing Sennelier products to the U.S., the magic of those pastels in the hands of a great contemporary artist. Daniel Greene is such an artist, and his two-page spread of Manhattan’s Franklin Street subway station is a wonder. So, too, are the simple photos of the neatly-ordered tortillons in a century-0ld drawer in the old shop.

For about ten years, I have so enjoyed using Sennelier pastels. The freshness and depth of their color makes every painting special. When I have a Sennelier pastel in my hand, I sense that there is legend there. I visited the shop in Paris, and sensed some of the history, but it was difficult to understand how the story fit together. When I started reading the book, I loved the combination of new and vintage photographs, art and artists at work, and the story told in both French and English blocks of prose. About a third of the way through the book, I realized that I was grinning. And I wondered about the last time I had grinned my way through the reading of an entire book.

Several years ago, NPR did a wonderful story about the Sennelier shop. Listen to it here.

Even better, I think, is the photo essay and commentary on the blog A Painter in Paris. The photo below should encourage you to visit both the blog and the store. Enjoy!

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The Key to Fun and Learning

For many years, scholars have debated the aesthetics of film (or, with greater pretense, “cinema”) and the mass culture associated with television (or, with less pretense, “TV” or “the idiot box”). Videogames make for more interesting study because they combine the sound and images with the 21st century version of interactivity. Stories aren’t watched–they’re played. Characters aren’t observed–they’re enacted by the participant. It’s rich stuff.

So here’s my new hero, Constance Steinkuehler, a University of Wisconsin assistant professor who studies the intersection between videogames, science and cognition. Currently she’s on a leave of absence, working at the White House in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. I first encountered Ms. Steinkuehler while listening to NPR’s Tell Me More in April. Then, I found a video, and I realized how much I/we could learn from her.

So I took all of our plans and I threw them out the window. Structured stuff? Not going to work…If I talk at them, they are not going to listen to me. So, we’re just going to do this weird, radical thing. We’re just going to…play next to them. When an interest comes up, we’ll be like, well, you know, the place to read more about that would be “x”…Once we turned it around to a ‘follow their interests’ kind of a model, everything shifted. And it worked.

She’s talking about how learning works. And she’s using videogames as the basis for that learning. Among teen boys who were part of her project, chosen because they did not do well in school. She paid attention to the ways in which they preferred to learn, and here’s what happened:

So for example, we had a reader who was in tenth grade who read at the sixth grade level. [He was not] doing well in school. I handed him a fifteenth grade level text (from the game) and he was reading it with absolutely fine comprehension, 94, maybe 96% accuracy…”

Why?

When they choose the text, when they actually care about it, they actually fix their own comprehension problems…”

These quotes are lifts from the video below.

Steinkuehler is not the only academic who is thinking deeply about videogames and learning. This page does a good job in providing an overview of the videogame industry, and includes several videos that will stimulate your thinking about what games mean and why they are important. (The embedded TED talk is quite good because it covers bits about the industry and bits about game design.)

In this field, one original source of light is James Paul Gee, who explains, simply, that every videogame is a set of problems to be solved in order to win. His excellent book, What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy, is an excellent place to begin thinking seriously about videogames. So, too, is this introductory video:

Carnegie Mellon’s Jesse Schell will take your thinking further. He’s a game designer, an author, and someone who is thinking about games and learning in very exciting new ways. You may have seen Jesse’s TED talk, but you may not have seen his TEDx talk which is, ultimately, about how games (by design) encourage collaboration and shared learning styles, and how well-designed games respect the learner in ways that school often does not.

BTW: Score yourself 100 extra points if you recognized this article’s title, “The Key to Fun and Learning” as the tagline that appeared on most Milton Bradley board games. Double your score if you recognized the bearded man as Milton himself, a pioneer in games that were fun and also provided a learning experience. Triple your score if you knew that Mr. Bradley started out by making game and puzzle kits for Civil War soldiers to occupy their time in camp (remember, those guys were, mostly, teenagers.)

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