digital humanities · higher education · teaching · technology · Uncategorized

an oscar pause


The Supremes standing near Detroit’s Brewster projects.

Chris Rock got a bit repetitive.  I had to put the Oscars on mute every now and then to flip teach.

This is as good a time as any to flip it, or get students in my my “Bebop to Hip Hop: Young America and Music” undergraduate class to start learning before class begins.

When the students are talking, I hear their analytical skills. Again, this is a smart group. Getting their thoughts down on paper is something else entirely for some.

So I turn to my graduate course “Gender, Race and the Urban Space” for help. There is a lot of overlap between the work in both classes this week so I’ll put that to good use.

The grads have the usual suspects before them: race, class and gender. We are  studying these topics via Detroit between the First and Second World Wars, and Harlem in the 1920s and 30s. Specifically, we turn to historian Victoria Wolcott’s look at how African American female blues singers, numbers runners and other “entrepreneurs” earned a living in Detroit in the interwar period. Some of these women had just arrived from the South and proved troublesome for Detroit’s then black elite, among them descendants of blacks who had lived in Canada after fleeing slavery. The elites preferred to see these new arrivals in more respectable occupations even if it was domestic work. These respectability politics figure into Wolcott’s larger study.

These black working women in Detroit pose interesting tensions with the “Miss Anne’s” of Harlem as described by Black Studies scholar Carla Kaplan. “Miss Anne” is a moniker for white women – among them, Charlotte Osgood Mason, “godmother” for a time to African American writer Zora Neale Hurston and British political activist-heiress Nancy Cunard. These women mingled with African American artists, writers and musicians in Harlem in the opening decades of the twentieth century. Harlem, on first glance, emerges as being a more sophisticated cultural site. There are important differences, but not entirely if we delved into the great music and other cultural productions that came out of Detroit before the 1960s.

More critical may be distilling how those individuals in Harlem and Detroit, especially the working class women, compare to the people on whom the undergrads are studying. I have mostly heard mention of men in the undergrad class. No surprises as the class is mostly filled with young men. One of the young celebrities on whom one student is focusing is the hip hop performer and producer Eminem. Thinking about how he registers beside Edward “Duke” Ellington who performed in Detroit and Harlem, may be hard for some, but let’s give it a try, knowing this blog entry is a just a gloss of potentially important or already studied research topics.

Eminem helped put Detroit’s “Eight Mile Road” inside a postwar musical narrative.

Before his rise to fame in the mid-1990s, Eminem spent part of his childhood in Detroit. He was actually born in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1971, just four years after the Detroit riot that followed a police raid on a “blind pig,” after hours establishment (although with meaningful difference, such establishments figure into Wolcott’s interwar study as Detroit was filled with them during the Prohibition period of the early twentieth century).

By the time Eminem was born, the “urban crisis” historian Thomas Sugrue offers in his own study of postwar Detroit, was visible in many American cities. Persisting racial and class segregation led to this crisis, devastating Detroit’s black entertainment districts like Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, which no longer had the vibrancy seen in the first half of the twentieth century.

My students are familiar with the words “Eight Mile Road,” an actual road in Detroit that unveils this urban crisis. Eight Mile Road is  the title of a 2002 motion picture starring Eminem. It was earlier made famous, however, owing to comments from the late Coleman Young, Detroit’s first African American mayor. This Tuscaloosa, AL, native served as mayor of Detroit from 1974 to 1994. A once leftist activist, he reportedly once told many people, including drug dealers and middle class whites, to “hit Eight Mile Road,” a symbolic and real border between the increasingly black city and increasingly white suburbs.

The late Coleman Young, first African American mayor for Detroit, is a native of Tuscaloosa, AL. He, too, put “Eight Mile Road, ” a symbolic and literal racial border on the map.

Eminem brings to life the working class community near this area that found black and white youth coming together for rap battles. Indeed, the music can never be divorced from bigger narratives like the urban crisis.

But Eminem also fits into a long legacy of performers in the Motor City. The challenge before us is seeing how easily he fits though. Duke Ellington, a New York-born African American son of pianists and later, musician-jazz bandleader-composer, performed in black entertainment districts like Paradise Valley and Black Bottom before 1960s-era urban renewal projects led to those areas’ decline. Other entertainment districts, including Miami’s Overtown, were harmed in similar manner. Postwar interstate highway construction also tore apart many black neighborhoods.

paradise theatre
Duke Ellington performed in Detroit’s Paradise Valley black entertainment district before its decline in the postwar period.

Evidently, private and public initiatives and conversations shape the production and consumption of entertainment although with important differences depending on the people and communities and eras on which we focus.

We might also think about the experiences of Diane, later Diana, Ross. Ross once lived in the Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, which were initially constructed during the Great Depression. Eleanor Roosevelt helped break ground. By the 1960s and 1970s, those projects, which once held as many as 10,000 residents over five city blocks long, were crime-ridden.

How do we analyze the kind of crime seen in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s against the kind seen in New Jersey? Right now, I am thinking about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Jersey boys who reportedly committed “petty crimes” although that is rarely what we remember when we think of the group (which, by the way, recorded for a Motown subsidiary in the 1970s).

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were reportedly known for minor brushes with the law in New Jersey prior to their rise to fame in the postwar period.

Also, how do we analyze the urban crisis in Detroit against the experiences of Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.?” Wallace? He is an African American hip hop performer from Brooklyn who rose to stardom in the 1990s. With ancestral roots in Jamaica, he got great grades and even attended Catholic high school for a while.

The late Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Smalls was a Brooklyn hip hop performer who once attended a Catholic high school and received good grades.

How do we analyze the urban crisis in Detroit against the experiences of Chris Squire, the founding member of Yes, the progressive rock band? Squire began his life in a working class London suburb.

We might ask the same of the familial beginnings of Janet Jackson, who was born in a postwar Midwestern city, and Johnny Cash, who was born in the South during the Great Depression. Almost everyone mentioned is a figure on whom one of my undergrad students is conducting research. Almost every celebrity mention has a working class beginning although with an important difference: the color of their skin. There are other differences worth recognizing, too, including when they were born and how long they lived in a particular environment and how that environment and other issues help us see the postwar story.

We have reached the halfway point of the semester. I am anxious to see how their analytical skills have grown. I look forward to seeing them move beyond merely describing an entertainer’s life and to truly begin analyzing it. Some of the work lies in opening books and finding articles and interesting primary sources like songs and video clips. Often less is more. Let’s see how it goes.

PS “Hollywood Swinging” as the Oscar closing song was sweet. And then “Fight the Power.” Find the postwar in that.

P.S.S.  I am most  looking forward to playing tomorrow “Fool’s Paradise,” a 1971  tune from the Sylvers, my favorite childhood band. Kendrick Lamar is among the many artists who have sampled their music. Political lyrics, circa 1970s.


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