Wednesday
Mar272013

Michael Lenehan and Ramblers

March Madness, Agate-style--here in the midst of the 2013 NCAA tournament, we've just published Ramblers, the first book by Chicago author Michael Lenehan. Ramblers is a sweeping, meticulously researched, beautifully told account of the 1963 NCAA tournament championship, won by the Ramblers of the university now known as Loyola Chicago. In the course of the book, Lenehan delves deeply not only into the backgrounds of the Loyola players and coach, but also the stories behind the Cincinnati Bearcats, Loyola's opponent in the championship game, and the Mississippi State Bulldogs, a team Loyola defeated in an earlier round. This fiftieth anniversary of Loyola's championship is an opportune time to revisit that particular tournament, and how it illustrated the ways that sports were reshaping people's thoughts and opinions about race at the height of the civil rights era.

Michael Lenehan photo by Rose Lenehan

What first prompted your interest in this story?

I have a memory of watching the 1963 championship game with my dad. Maybe not an accurate memory, but one of the things I’ve learned doing this book is that memory is a tricky thing. And then some years later I wound up living in Chicago, where Loyola’s ’63 season is part of the civic lore. It’s the only time a team from Illinois ever won the national championship. Chicagoans, or at least those who pay attention to sports, remember it decades later as a great Cinderella story. 

            But like a lot of Chicagoans, I’ve learned, I was not aware of the racial dimension of the story: Loyola was one of the first major college teams to have four black starters; it was the first to put five black players on the floor at the same time. In those days it was considered unusual, even daring, to have that many black faces in the team picture. Coaches would crack that you could play one on the road, two at home, and three if you were way behind. A few years ago I saw a flashback feature on the local public TV station, and it made the racial angle quite explicit. The next day I went looking for a book on the subject. I figured if I found one, which is what I expected, I would enjoy reading it. And if I didn’t find one, maybe I would enjoy writing it. 

So it was the racial angle, and not the basketball, that drew you in?

It was the combination. What I like about the story is the idea that it’s hard to be a prejudiced basketball player. You can’t afford racial attitudes or prejudgments. You have to see what’s right in front of you. And if a guy fakes you out and blows past you for an easy layup, makes you look like a fool, it’s hard to hold on to the idea that you are better than he is. It’s a common observation that sport is often in the vanguard of social change. It’s an unambiguous meritocracy. I tend to see it in terms of expertise. Basketball players share a special knowledge, the knowledge of the game, and they have to see each other in those terms first. They have to see through their prejudices and the destructive things they may have been taught growing up.

            This may seem like something of a stretch, but to my mind the same thing happens with musicians. One of my favorite nonfiction books is Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music. Among many other things, it tells the stories of the legendary rhythm sections of Muscle Shoals and Memphis, the studio musicians you hear behind the great black singers of the early 60s—same era, of course—Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Percy Sledge. These studio guys literally created the sound that we think of as “soul music.” And a lot of them were white guys who felt the groove the same way the black guys did. The black guys and the white guys played side by side, worked with each other every day—in places where that was sometimes frowned upon. But if you’re a musician, or a basketball player, you don’t care about the other guy’s color, or family, or ancestors, or socioeconomic status. Only one thing counts: Can he play?

            To me, Loyola’s championship season was a vivid embodiment of this idea. Especially in the second round of the tournament, when they play an all-white team from Mississippi State. This team literally had to sneak out of Mississippi to compete in the tournament, because of an unwritten rule that forbade them from playing against blacks. The players grew up in this really prejudiced environment, they were taught all kinds of crazy things about the mixing of the races, but they wanted to play the best basketball players they could find.

            I start the book with a quote from a Georgia state legislator. It was 1957 and he was proposing a law that would ban integrated sports events. He said, “When Negroes and whites meet on the athletic fields on a basis of complete equality, it is only natural that this sense of equality carries into the daily living of these people.” He meant it as a warning, of course, a doomsday scenario, but to me it’s the moral of the story. 

What went into the writing of this book?

A lot more than I anticipated. When I started I thought I was doing a book about one team—six or eight guys, ten at the most. But as I got deeper into it I realized that the story I wanted to tell, a story about how the game was integrated, involved three teams. Not only the Ramblers, but also Mississippi State and the team Loyola beat in the final, Cincinnati, because they too led the way in recruiting and starting black players. And they had a great story in their own right. They had to learn a new system after losing Oscar Robertson, who was arguably the best player in the world, and they learned it so well that they had more success without him.

            And then I found the story taking me back in time, to the playgrounds of New York, and to Nashville and Tennessee State University and John McLendon, the Tennessee State coach, a really remarkable character who in some ways is the hero of the whole story. So I wound up interviewing 50 or 60 people and going all over the country. Fortunately, most of the players from 1963 are still healthy and doing well. We’ve lost a couple, and we lost one, Joe Dan Gold from Mississippi State, while I was working on the book. That was in the back of my mind. Get this thing done before we lose any more.

What was so important about this particular moment?

The whole country was in an uproar. One reason why the Mississippi State situation was so tricky was that just before the beginning of the season, James Meredith had enrolled as the first black student at Ole Miss, which provoked an armed insurrection. President Kennedy sent 30,000 federal troops to Oxford. When I did the research I was just flabbergasted at the enormity and seriousness of it. It was an honest-to-God constitutional crisis. Two people were killed and hundreds were wounded and arrested.

            Meanwhile in the game of basketball, another transition was taking place. I like the way it was put by one coach I interviewed: he said the game was changing from horizontal to vertical. Before black players were accepted, basketball was usually about patterns and passing, Xs and Os. When black players began to get their chance, they brought a different game, a flashier and more exciting game, that involved speed and jumping and athletic ability.

            When Loyola played in the south, they were spat on, cursed, showered with garbage. Today, basketball arenas are filled with one-percenters who pay hundreds of bucks a pop to watch the high-flying “above the rim” acrobatics that inner-city players brought to the game. The 1963 championship was a tipping point.

Most fans see 1966 as the tipping point—when Texas El Paso played Kentucky.

Sure, the “Glory Road” game. I try to make the point in Ramblers that of course there are many key moments. The Glory Road game was certainly an important one, and it was perfect for the movies. One team was all black, and their coach was a young iconoclast, and the other team was all white, and their coach was Adolph Rupp, a crusty old coot who resisted integration for years. But it’s not like all of a sudden we had a black team playing a white team. The integration of the game starts right at the end of World War II. I try to show it developing slowly over the years. 

What surprised you most in researching the stories of these teams and players?

Memory. Like I said before, it’s a tricky thing. If you want to get a rude education in the human mind’s ability to store and retrieve information, try asking seven or eight people to tell you about the same event.

Thursday
Mar212013

NPR's Morning Edition on annuities

A very practical segment on this perennially misunderstood financial instrument. Who are annuities good for, and why? The best source of info we know of is David Reindel's Don't Die Broke.

Thursday
Mar212013

What editors do--latest installment

A very graphic account of one talented young writer's experience being edited by an older, very experienced, and very exacting editor. Hard-core stuff.

Friday
Mar152013

More Ta-Nehisi Coates!

In which he weighs in on the recent Atlantic centered fracas about writing for free vs. writing for pay, and as always introduces new dimensions to the discussion:

The New Republic had just told the world that black people had evolved to be stupid, and it seemed like every week they were saying something just as racist. I was at Howard University, surrounded by a community of brilliant black people, cut off from the Ivies. None of them had the contacts or the resources to reply. They just had to take it. I can't tell you how much that angered me. I was made in that moment. And when I got my first break in writing, I didn't think about being ripped off. I thought about whipping ass. I haven't changed.

Wednesday
Mar062013

Vodka Distilled--the Agate perspective

We’re very happy to have just published the second cocktail book by Tony Abou-Ganim. Called Vodka Distilled,  it focuses on the spirit that’s both most popular and least respected, at least in the craft cocktail world. Tony’s aim is to rehabilitate vodka by giving us a clearer-sighted take on its strengths in mixology terms, and along the way analyzes the tasting characteristics of almost 60 different vodkas from around the world. In honor of the book’s publication, I asked some Agate staffers about their favorite kinds of vodka and how they like to drink it, and here's what I learned. Names have been redacted to protect each drinker's privacy.

—“I don't know if I should readily admit this, especially to my co-workers, but I'm a big vodka fan. It's my go-to spirit of choice. I tend to go with Absolut or Ketel One because when a bartender asks what you prefer, it's a safe bet that they've got one of those. Cocktail of choice: vodka and soda. In my book it's the little black dress of drinks: goes with everything, is never too heavy or too sweet, good for all occasions."

—“Chopin is the brand of choice in my household. Typically, we drink a shot after a heavy dinner or to toast during a party. When we toast, we always say Sto Lat, which means "100 years".  Mixed, I enjoy a Cranberry Vodka occasionally. On a side note, my mom will add a shot of vodka when making her paczki (these are Polish jelly donuts) to add some aroma to the dough, but she will use Absolut or Smirnoff for that."

—“Grey Goose when we're getting the 'nice' stuff, Smirnoff when it's supposed to be drinkable for people at parties—sometimes one of their many flavored varieties."

—“Grey Goose. In a red Solo cup (blue will do in a pinch). Neither measured nor shaken nor stirred—just poured hastily over rocks with a Rockstar and then jostled while I charm the biddies. Chase with a shot of Jäger and then get back on the dance floor.”

—“Stolichnaya. I know, very old school. I like that I can always get it at my grocery store. When my wife and I got married, a friend gave us matching crystal shot glasses. We keep the Stoli in the freezer and every now and then bust out those glasses for an ice-cold shot. Favorite vodka cocktail is the gimlet."

—“I buy Absolut. My favorite vodka drink is a dirty martini, and I can't see spending money on top-shelf stuff when I'm going to pour olive juice in it. I'm just looking not to go blind."

—“Absolut Peppar, for making a Bloody Mary. At least six olives. I'm constantly chasing the Bloody Mary dragon for that perfect salt-to-heat ratio.”

—“I'm a fan of Death's Door from Wisconsin. It doesn't have the sharp sting that some other brands have. It's clean, smooth, and has a subtle aroma and flavor of vanilla. The distillery sources all their organic wheat locally, so it's a bit more expensive than other brands, but worth the splurge.”

—“Probably due to a common adolescent obsession with the Big Lebowski and an uncommon affinity toward milk, I spent a large portion of my college years drinking White Russians. The recipe is simple: two parts vodka for every one part Kahlua (add in a splash of Bailey's for extra character). Add whole ice cubes, and fill with skim milk (please, no half and half). I preferred only the most widely available and affordable mid-stream vodkas: Smirnoff and Absolut."

—“Due to an unfortunate and ill-advised incident many years ago, I no longer drink a lot of vodka.”

—“I prefer Ketel One. This particular vodka tastes, to my palate, like the thermometer in my grade school nurse's office used to taste, i.e., like rubbing alcohol. Not a selling point for most people, I imagine, but to me pleasingly astringent and suffused with the glow of nostalgia and the delicious feeling of not being in class, whatever the cause.”

—“There are two very large bottles of vodka on our bar: Ketel One and Absolut. Either works for me as long as it is mixed up with my husband's perfect Bloody Mary recipe and handed to me after 10am on a Sunday morning. Side note: A colleague of mine at Agate, who not only has a very sophisticated palate but also a highly coveted selection of wine and spirits in her home, once shared with me a sip of—are you ready for this?—whipped cream vodka. I loved and hated it all at the same time. I am quite certain you can buy it at Walgreens."

—“I am the individual referred to so coyly above. While Pinnacle Whipped Cream Vodka is surely no premium brand, it is indispensable in making a Lemon Meringue Pie cocktail (Pinnacle and limoncello). It's a great accessory and makes a yummy low(er)-cal Black Russian. But when I drink non frou-frou vodka, I drink Absolut."

—“I do love a Bloody Mary. I plan on trying Death's Door vodka out of Door County, WI, as my family used to vacation there and to me, nothing screams Bloody Mary like a family vacation."

—“I'm not a vodka drinker. So I never buy it. But my husband has recently developed an interest in that bottle of Stolichnaya that's been in our freezer from a party we had a while back. He's tried adding it to fresh-squeezed juice on ice and making some basic mixed drinks. I think he even tried it in hot chocolate. His review: “tastes great.” My thoughts: it might be time to give him Vodka Distilled."

Tuesday
Mar052013

Chicago is America's best city for pizza

...according to Travel + Leisure. All of the native Chicagoans who work here at Agate--they're having a good day today.

Tuesday
Feb262013

Snowed out

Agate has closed its office for the rest of today, February 26--if you need to reach us, best to email.

Monday
Feb252013

Mediterranean diet, heart disease, and The Puglian Cookbook

All over today's news: more evidence that the "Mediterranean diet" can have powerful positive effects on heart health. Seems like a great opportunity to remind everyone of The Puglian Cookbook by Viktorija Todorovska, a collection of delicious and simple-to-prepare recipes from Italy's Puglia region that typifies the best of the Mediterranean diet. While we get ready to publish Viktorija's next great collection of Mediterranean recipes, The Sardinian Cookbook, next fall, it seemed like a great time to post this interview with her.

Viktorija Todorovska

What attracted you to the cuisine of Puglia?

A big part of my love for Puglian cuisine is my appreciation for the people of Puglia and their passion for their food. Puglian cooks focus on the quality of the ingredients they use: each dish tells a story and the flavors reflect the history and traditions of the region. The clean flavors and simple preparations captured my imagination from my very first visit. Puglian dishes have simple preparations that let the ingredients shine. Many of the dishes are quite unique, which makes learning about them and enjoying them a culinary adventure. 

How would you describe Puglian food culture?

In Puglia, food permeates every aspect of life. Historically, Puglia has been one of the largest producers of food products in Italy, from olive oil to wheat. It is the breadbasket of Italy. Puglia was also historically very poor, so the cuisine was born out of the need to create flavorful dishes from simple and affordable ingredients. To this day, Puglian cooking is simple and makes the best use of local ingredients. The recipes developed based on what was grown in the area, and they are deeply rooted in the region and its cultural traditions.

Because the dishes are simple, the quality of the ingredients is tantamount. To this day, Puglian people focus on selecting the best ingredients they can as the flavors of those ingredients really come through in the dishes.

Why do you feel that the cuisine of Puglia has been overlooked?

Puglia has been overlooked by travelers and as a result its cuisine has remained less familiar even to Italians outside the region, let alone to people outside of Italy. For a long time, Puglia was so poor that despite its natural beauty, it remained little known. That is changing very quickly as a new generation of food and wine producers in Puglia are working hard to introduce their region to the world. Travelers and food and wine professionals are starting to discover this sunny region’s charms and treasures.

What made you decide to write The Puglian Cookbook?

I fell in love with Puglia the very first time I set foot there. The colors, smells, and flavors stayed with me when I returned home. The food I tasted on that first trip was so unforgettable that I had to recreate some of the recipes at home. I had learned a little about Puglian cuisine when I took courses at Apicius, the International School of Hospitality in Florence, and that along with my visit to Puglia gave me the necessary skills to start cooking Puglian food. When I shared those dishes with my friends and clients, they were impressed. Not only did the food taste good, but also many of the dishes were surprising. They were unlike the things we typically see in Italian restaurants in the States, or in cookbooks on Italian cuisine. So, I kept returning to Puglia to discover new recipes and culinary secrets. And I wanted to share these extraordinary treasures with my friends and clients, so I started posting some of the recipes on my website and teaching them in my cooking classes. This motivated me to gather the recipes in an easy-to-use book that home cooks can use to create this wonderful cuisine

Do you have any particular favorite recipes from the book?

Tough question. Different recipes appeal to me for different moods and occasions. In the summer, I love to make the linguine with cherry tomatoes and capers: it’s quick, easy, and full of flavor. In the winter, lamb stew is the perfect comfort dish. And year-round, hand-made cavatelli with orecchiette always excites my taste buds and reminds me of why I fell in love with Puglia in the first place.

What is your own background as a cook and writer?

I have been a serious home cook for more than a decade now. I learned how to cook by reading recipes in magazines and cookbooks and trying them out. Once you start cooking at home and realize how great homemade food tastes, you want to keep learning more. After several years of teaching myself and taking classes at local cooking schools, I went to a professional cooking school in Italy for a summer. That experience taught me more technique and the culinary secrets of Italian cooks, and propelled me into the world of semi-professional cooking. After a second summer spent in Italy, at Apicius in Florence, I was on my way to creating new recipes and teaching others how to cook at home.

I have been writing for as long as I can remember, but learning about food and taking cooking classes made me realize that my writing skills combine very nicely with my cooking skills. So, I started writing about the recipes I was discovering and the people I was meeting in my culinary travels. My background in technical writing helps me write recipes that are simple, clear, and easy to use.

What are your opinions on the benefits of home cooking?

For me, home cooking is the best kind of cooking. There is no experience that even comes close to eating something you prepared yourself. It feeds your body and soul. Home cooking provides a great opportunity to gather friends and family and create memories. Cooking together and sharing food with loved ones are integral parts of our social and emotional lives.

Home cooking is also healthful: you can decide what ingredients you want to use and select the recipes accordingly. You can also regulate the amount of fat and salt you consume.

Finally, for me, home cooking is like meditation: it helps me relax and clear my mind. And knowing that I’ll enjoy something delicious at the end of the process is energizing and fulfilling.

Wednesday
Feb132013

Freeman wins BCALA best fiction award

Congratulations are due Leonard Pitts, Jr., whose novel Freeman was just named the winner of the fiction category of the 2013 BCALA Literary Awards, given by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Pitts is no stranger to prizes, as his syndicated column won the Pulitzer in 2004, but I know how much winning this sort of recognition for his fiction will mean to him. Arriving as it does during Black History Month, the timing of this award couldn't be more apropos--Freeman is set in the American South in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, and delves deep into the lives of both black and white Americans as they deal with emancipation. Few novels published in recent years have more important things to say about African-American history than this one.

Tuesday
Feb122013

A brief digression on winter

A recent transplant to Chicago makes his peace with February in the Paris Review.

Monday
Feb112013

More from The New Old Bar

Here's a terrific little video from The Chicagoist of Steve McDonagh talking cocktails. Working with Steve and his partner, Dan Smith, of Hearty Boys fame, has also been terrific--and the below will give you a great sense of what makes their The New Old Bar so terrific too.

Friday
Feb012013

Gil Robertson's new Where Did Our Love Go

This month, Agate Bolden is pleased to announce its newest book from Gil L. Robertson IV. Where Did Our Love Go: Love and Relationships in the African-American Community, is the third anthology Gil has edited, after Not in My Family: AIDS in the African-American Community and Family Affair: What it Means to be African American Today. Over the years we've developed an especially positive working relationship with Gil, whose warm, relaxed demeanor belies the passion he brings to his material. Gil recently answered these questions for us about his new anthology, which has just been released.

Gil L. Robertson IV

Why did you choose to do this anthology?

The “black marriage gap” is a huge problem in this country. Relationships between black men and women—I won’t even mention love—have reached a low point. The scale of this problem is shocking, and potentially crippling to the vitality of the African-American community at large. As in my earlier books, my goal is to stimulate constructive dialogues around this subject so that it can be better understood and, I hope, yield some answers.

This is the third anthology you’ve edited focusing on big issues facing the African-American community. What drew you to tackle these questions?

It’s no secret that the African-American community is plagued by numerous problems, and I feel that it is important to address these problems through the perspectives of those who are most affected by them. The anthology format is an excellent forum for presenting various ideas and opinions around a central subject. What these books represent is an organized way to examine these subjects and generate ideas that might lead to solutions.  

What do you hope African American will get out of reading this book? 

A new openness to examine this issue, and the courage to take the steps necessary turn things around. It’s long overdue that we think outside the box to find new ways to deal with certain patterns of behavior. Everyone in the black community has to take responsibility for the problems that we’re seeing in our relationships, and it’s high time that we take a real look at “the man in the mirror,” if you well and own up to the role we’ve each played to contribute to these problems. We have to change if we want different results.

Productive, healthy relationships are definitely possible, but they take hard work to maintain. Like any group of people, most African Americans seek positive intimate relationships in their lives. However, many of us are carrying so much personal baggage about how we see each other (especially members of our own race) that it prevents us from building solid bonds with potential partners. I also feel there is a real need for African Americans to become more spiritually connected to their identities. This has nothing to do with religion—what I mean is the need for more black people to own up to who they are and what they really need to lead satisfying lives. 

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating this book?

 The black community is ready to address this issue, but it needs the right infrastructure to support the conversation. As soon as I put the word out about this project, I found that people were very eager to share their stories or perspectives about this issue. Of all the anthologies that I have edited so far, none of them engendered this kind of enthusiasm.

Another thing worth nothing is the difficulty some of my contributors had in completing their essays. For some, writing their essays was like giving the “big reveal,” where they had to be totally open regarding the matter that was closest to their hearts: finding love. Compiling this project was really an amazing process, and I believe that readers will be rewarded by the passion, honesty, and truth expressed in these essays. 

Can you outline some areas where your contributors agreed? Disagreed?

Well, surprisingly, nearly all of my contributors felt that there was still hope for turning this tide around. The contributors were keenly appreciative of the importance of stable, loving, and productive relationships to the African American community. The position that was nearly universal is that the time is now for big changes to take place in terms of how African Americans engage with one another, especially when it comes to this subject.  

What do you think the effect has been of the media attention focused on African-American marriage rates?

No high marks here. A majority of the stories that I have read have presented the black marriage gap problem through a lens of hyperbole and half-truths. With few exceptions, the media has failed to give this subject the sort of full-bodied examination it deserves. Now, that’s no fault to the individual journalists who have reported on this situation. The very nature of the media today is to spin stories toward the sensational. I hope this book will provide fodder for much more comprehensive dialogue.

You arranged the book into three sections, focusing on singles, married couples, and divorcees. Were there any overarching themes between sections?

The one recurring theme is probably the importance of people maintaining trust and honesty not only with their partners, but most of all, with themselves. In each section, the writers really open themselves in expressing their hopes and fears about having a steadfast partner in their lives. It didn’t matter if they were single, married, or divorced; the one thing all of the contributors have in common is that they all covet finding real and long-lasting love.

Monday
Jan212013

Inauguration Flashback: Ava DuVernay on Barack and Michelle Obama

Today, President Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural address. To commemorate the event, Agate would like to take you back four years to the President's historic first inauguration. The following essay, Ava DuVernay's "Monica, Katrina, & Michelle: The Journey to Obama," is taken from Family Affair: What It Means to Be African American Today (Agate Bolden, 2009), a collection of essays edited by veteran journalist Gil L. Robertson, IV. In this essay, DuVernay looks at three of the most recognizable and in some ways representative "women" of the past three presidencies.

On a day that celebrates the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the election of Barack Obama to a second term, this essay is especially pertinent. It serves as a powerful reminder of how  American and African-American cultures have changed over the last two decades and how they have been so hugely influenced by three names. Beyond that, it serves as a valuable reminder of the way many people viewed President Obama as he entered his first term, illuminating how our perceptions have changed and grown four years later.

Family Affair is available as a free Kindle download today only on Amazon. Click here to download.

 

 

Monica, Katrina, & Michelle: The Journey to Obama

By Ava DuVernay

 

The truth is incontrovertible.

Malice may attack it.

Ignorance may deride it.

But in the end, there it is.

—Winston Churchill

 

The last two decades of American life can be boiled down to three words: Monica. Katrina. Michelle.

Every American knows the names. We know what they represent. Within this triptych of monikers, lies the legacies—both past and present—of presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Each woman’s name represents another battle in the war to win the hearts and minds of Americans—Americans who have increasingly shifted toward a new collective morality and a history-busting mandate to put a black man in the White House.

Our moral compass began to shift en masse in the midst of a scandal so scandalous one could hardly believe it was true. The leader of the free world cheated on the First Lady in the revered Oval Office with a White House intern and then denied the liaison until physical proof was produced—in the form of that pitiful blue dress.

 

America, Meet Monica

One would think Monica would have been a source of national embarrassment, as she sauntered around our water coolers in all her voluptuous glory, shapely with spectacle and buxom with gall. But President Clinton’s job approval ratings didn’t budge. In fact, they rose! His smugness thickened, and it’s still lathered on his every word to this day.

At the height of Monica’s powers, the country’s self-appointed moral watchdogs saw her as their way of bringing liberalism down. Wiretap after subpoena after hearing quickly followed—all designed by Republican conservatives to whip up America’s outrage and tip the scales. But despite their undeniable prowess in getting elected, Republicans have repeatedly failed to keep America locked inside an old episode of Ozzie & Harriet. Rather than the revulsion they hoped to generate, they instead created a monster called Political Entertainment—a new-school version of political theater with less back room intrigue and more general consumer salaciousness.

Yep, in the 1990s, it was becoming quite clear that counterculture was the new mainstream. Things that were once hidden away in the closet became a national pastime, à la Jerry Springer and the National Enquirer. The trust we once placed in our president was beginning to dissipate, and we barely noticed as it started to disappear, for more deeply rooted than our thirst for spectacle was a clear identification with Clinton’s shortcomings. I mean, we all have our own Monica lurking somewhere, right? Some past example of bad judgment just waiting to emerge with a blue dress? In short, America empathized. 

Polls conducted during 1998 and early 1999 showed that only around one-third of Americans wanted Clinton impeached or convicted. Completely out of touch with the will of the people, Republicans pressed on in their witch hunt. Clinton was impeached in December 1998 on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power. Votes fell strictly along party lines, with not one vote for conviction coming from fellow Democrats. He was acquitted two months later by the Senate and remained in office until 2001.

It has been said that the sexual politics around Monica played into America’s “isms”—notions of uncontrollable sexuality levied against African Americans, labels of perversion aimed at the gay community, and accusations of promiscuity toward women who follow their passions. All of these groups are labeled as outsiders by conservatism, and they took advantage of the opportunity to rally together as part of a new-jack morality that became integral to the American ideology of the late nineties. Monica brought in a new political dawn, one colored by a great grappling with our own issues of personal responsibility. At least for a while, we shunned blame and repression.

But somewhere within Monica’s saga and Clinton’s mastery of this new touchy-feely America, the new morality crystallized even further. It took a couple of years for us to connect the dots and gain an understanding that moral open-mindedness need not be anchored to acts of frivolity and ego. We could be forward thinking and resolve our own inner Monicas without lying and cheating to do so, as Clinton had. We could be free and high-minded, liberal and responsible. 

So, just one year after Monica, the majority of Americans changed their tune and declared that they supported the impeachment and disapproved of the acquittal that allowed Clinton to serve out his term. We decided we were all for personal liberation, but not at the expense of our new morality. Monica taught us that, and in doing so, she left the door open for another woman to walk through.

In the wake of the Clinton scandal, the 2000 presidential election understandably centered more squarely on issues of “moral character” and “honesty.” Postelection data found that the most significant reason people voted for George W. Bush was for—try not to laugh too hard here—his high moral standards. After the unspeakable horror of 9/11, Bush had the sympathy of the world and the full support of the American people. He cashed in his cultural currency, betting on WMDs and launching two wars in the name of our new grand morality. A bitter, bruised America went along with it. It would take a complete and total breakdown of Bush’s so-called morals to shake us from our slumber and cement the public’s indictment. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

 

America, Meet Katrina

If Monica made us face our personal inadequacies, Katrina made us own up to our collective limitations. She blew into our lives with the forces of race and class at her back. She pulled aside the curtain on the illusion that society can reward the wealthy with disproportionate tax cuts while skimping on basic public safeguards, and that all the treasures trickle down. News alert: It doesn’t quite work that way.

The collapse of this key tenet of Bush’s beliefs was broadcast live and in living color for the world to see. Suddenly, America angrily called into question not only Bush’s handling of the hurricane, but his policies overall. More importantly, it called into question the trust we placed in him. Katrina laid bare any reasonable belief in Bush’s competence and revealed the hard fact that America had saddled itself with a leader more concerned with an ideological agenda than real-world choices to help real people.

Katrina demanded that we take a long, cold look at ourselves and our leadership. For whatever systemic racism and everyday prejudices “mainstream” Americans held about their darker brethren, white folks were horrified to see dead bodies of black people floating in the streets of New Orleans. They found it unacceptable that black grandmothers and grandchildren were left in the sweltering heat without food or aid. We all heard the national gasp of horror when thousands of displaced citizens were shuttled into the hellhole that was the Superdome.

In 2005, at the beginning of a new century, it was becoming quite clear that “mainstream” America was beginning to admit it had a race problem—and a president problem. As we all know, the first step in recovery is claiming your illness. Things once left in the closet were now the topic of serious discussions both in the press and around the kitchen table. The trust we once placed in our president was deteriorating rapidly, and this time, we noticed. More deeply rooted than our avoidance of real debate about race was a clear identification with those unfortunate souls in the Lower Ninth Ward. I mean, we all have a grandmother we’d give our left arm for, right? A loved one who we’d rather see dead than degraded in the streets, while our president vacationed and palled around with “Brownie,” who was doing a “heckuva job”? In short, America woke up.

Polls have steadily tracked Bush’s decline in favorability since 9/11. Americans endured eight years of inept leadership, including his war of choice in Iraq, his lies about WMDs, his endorsement of torture, his failure to capture bin Laden, and his piss-poor responses to Katrina and the financial disaster heard ’round the world. In 2008, his last year in office, he earned the worst Gallup quarterly approval rating of any president since 1945: a blistering 27 percent. Katrina became the impetus for this national about-face on Bush. She exposed a systemic effort to distort the will of the people—white, black and otherwise—in the interest of the powerful, privileged few. She allowed us to fully understand the abuse of power and betrayal of trust that we ignored with Monica.

Senator John Kerry, who was defeated by Bush in 2004 only through trickery, put it best:

Katrina is the background of a new picture we must paint of America. For five years, our nation’s leaders have painted a picture of America where ignoring the poor has no consequences, where every criticism is rendered unpatriotic. And if you say “War on Terror” enough times, Katrina never happens. Well, Katrina did happen, and it washed away that coat of paint and revealed the true canvas of America with all its imperfections. Now, we must stop this Administration from again whitewashing the true state of our challenges. We have to paint our own picture—an honest picture with all the optimism we deserve—one that gives people a vision where no one is excluded or ignored. Where leaders are honest about the challenges we face as a nation, and never reserve compassion only for disasters.

America did step up. In one fell swoop, Katrina exposed the contradictions and revealed Bush to be one of the most divisive presidents in our nation’s history. Our broken trust birthed a new appetite of rebuilding both New Orleans and the whole nation as well. The public made the concentrated choice it had failed to make with Monica by shifting from the personal invective of “every man for himself” to a belief in a shared endeavor. “What’s in it for me” became “What’s in it for us?”—at least for a while. Katrina sharpened the rallying call, bringing the wars, health care, energy dependence, national security, the environment, and education into focus through the prism of a newer, more inclusive morality. It allowed us to usher in what would become one of our greatest national moments.

 

America, Meet Michelle

Let’s get the scenario in order. A junior African-American senator captures the Democratic nomination after a long campaign against a former president’s wife. Next, he goes on to handily win three debates against a war hero and dominate all national polls before claiming a commanding victory to become the leader of the free world.

This story would be astonishing in its audacity and seeming implausibility if it weren’t true. As Winston Churchill once said, “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, and ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

Despite the Clintons, McCain, Palin, Wright, Ayers—hell, even despite Joe the friggin’ Plumber and all the malice and ignorance, the truth is incontrovertible. Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States of America. There it is.

In an interview with 60 Minutes days after his historic win, President-elect Obama offered this nugget to America: “I want to make sure that I can recreate a bond of trust between the presidency and the public that, I think, has been lost.” With his eye-popping approval rating, Obama seems poised to do just that.

On November 10, 2008, the most famous dress to grace the White House was no longer Monica’s blue travesty, it was the deep red shift worn by Michelle as she toured her new home. Damn being demure! We bringin’ power to the people! The sight of Mr. Obama and his wife striding up the White House steps was a transformative image to behold. Even more than the unforgettable Grant Park moment when he declared victory to an adoring, blubbering throng of believers (including me), the first White House visit and the boldness of the future First Lady said it all. This stellar sister and her husband brought a breath of fresh air to the hallowed halls of the world’s most famous residence—and to the rusty old game of politics. In one visit, Michelle supplanted the cartoons of Monica, Katrina, and their representative presidencies, ripe with mishandled trust and low morals. In one photo op, she and Barack infused the image of the White House with pride, panache, and polish again. They are a pair to be admired, to be trusted, and, well, um, to be black! Let the church say Amen!

Yep, in 2008, the fact that our new favorite son is black makes perfect sense when you follow the path the American public has traveled, surviving both Monica and Katrina during the past sixteen years. I heard someone say that they’d never seen so many Americans crying together in happiness as they did on the night of Election Day 2008. In the past decade, Americans have huddled together in moments of demoralization and tragedy—9/11 and Katrina leap to mind. They were moments when we huddled together in our anguish, outrage, and pain. But on November 4, 2008, at 11:00 p.m. EST, when the networks announced “Obama elected president,” we huddled together in a collective wave of joy. It was a mighty first in the difficult and tragic union that is America. This first ushered in a 20/20 hindsight of our blunders and failings. Election Day was a new day and an even newer morality for America, one in which a collective enlightenment sprang forth from the ashes of untrustworthy leaders, ego-driven embarrassments, racial division, and an overall ambivalence about the American dream.

According to Gallup polls, liberals and moderates tipped the scales for Obama at 88 percent and 72 percent favorability after the election, respectively. These robust majorities proclaim that they have a positive outlook for Barack Obama’s presidency, as would be expected. However, close to half of political conservatives—45 percent—also say he will make a good president. That’s far greater than the 23 percent who voted for him in the election—radical information! The same folks who wanted to keep America in Leave It to Beaver-land, who resisted affirmative action and gay rights, and who tried to block the progression of our nation’s civil-rights legislation—these people are now leaning toward the most liberal president in United States history. Oh, and he’s black! Astonishing. We have Monica and Katrina to thank for it.

The fact that President Obama inherits a financial system near collapse, a federal deficit that boggles the mind, two wars, and a violent enemy who remains at large after more than seven years doesn’t change the fact that he is turning a page for the nation. This page must be turned. He is turning a page for the black community, too. Our story must be retooled and retold, this time, by us.

Luckily, our first black president is a black man who knows who he is and, more importantly, who knows who we are. Michelle is the magnificent symbol of his self-knowledge. Let’s not take for granted that we could have had a very different black man in this position. How would we have felt if Colin Powell or Clarence Thomas were the first black president? Just as proud? I don’t think so. If we wanted to be represented by anyone, it was and is by someone like Obama. If we wanted our story retooled and retold by anyone, it would be someone who knows who we are as a people. 

Both FDR and Reagan came into office when America was in economic emergency mode. Each went on to reframe the nation in his own image. President Obama now has the rare opportunity, strengthened by a vocal public mandate, to do the same. Imagine that. America shaped in the image of a black man, with a black woman by his side. Michelle is the steady bow of the Obama ship, one that, it seems, all of America (and the world) hopes will steer us to the Promised Land. A ship that will restore our standing in the world and our self-image at home. It is breathtaking that the new leader of the free world, the most powerful man in the world, is a black man. That he goes home to a tight-knit, loving family headed by a black woman is soul-stirring.

Michelle’s “real black womanness” isn’t lost upon anyone, black, white, or otherwise. There are no blurred lines when it comes to her lips, hips, and hair. Her swagger is all sister, all the time. I don’t mean the nonsensical, fabricated cartoon of a black woman’s swagger: gum-popping, neck-twisting, and switching. No, I mean the real swagger of a black woman: solid, strategic, strong.

How will the world react, now that the myth of blackness is being transformed by a beautiful black family in the White House? What do we do, now that the trustworthiness of the president is being reestablished by a black man? How do we act, now that the myth of inferior black intellect is destroyed and the notion of nonexistent black discipline is obliterated?

Should we function as the same characters in a new story? We can’t. We must change. Whether it’s a revolution, an evolution, or just getting our house in order, when President Obama said in his victory speech, “Change has come to America,” he meant us, too. If he is remaking America, how are you remaking yourself? Your family? What will be your story? Our story? The story that walks out before us into this nation and around the world. Most importantly, it will be the story that is reflected back in our own mirrors.

We must add a new name to the litany of monikers that will represent this country. No more Monica. No more Katrina. Choose the name of a woman who has changed your life and changed your mind: a woman who represents the best of you. Let’s list her after Michelle and begin a new name game, one in which everyone wins.

We’re blessed to be living and breathing and loving and hoping in this time. These are glorious days. These are the days that will be immortalized in history books for hundreds of years to come. These are the greatest days of our collective life. We are alive to drink of the sweet nectar of these days. We are here!

The truth is incontrovertible, if we make it so. We are here! And there it is.

 

—Ava DuVernay

 

Ava DuVernay is president/founder of DVA Media + Marketing, the parent company to DVAPR, Urban Thought Collective, UrbanEye, and Urban Beauty Collective. Through DVA, DuVernay reaches millions of urban consumers each month on behalf of high-profile clients at Paramount, Warner Brothers, Fox, ABC, HBO, the CW, and Showtime, to name a few. She is also an award-winning filmmaker, having directed and produced the feature documentary This Is the Life and Showtime’s Saturday Night Life under her Forward Movement banner. Her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere, won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival prize for Best Director.

Thursday
Jan172013

Anjali Becker on Notre Dame and Campus Sex Assaults

As Salon's Irin Carmon points out, Notre Dame already has a woman-and-football-players problem. It's just not the problem that people are talking about right now. In September 2010, St. Mary's College freshman Elizabeth "Lizzy" Seeberg was found dead of an apparent suicide, just days after alleging that she had been sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player. The Chicago Tribune launched a year-long investigation into sexual assaults that take place on campuses all across the Midwest. Their investigation uncovered disturbing evidence of antiquated and obfuscated reporting and prosecuting practices and led to subsequent reforms at schools across the region. Campus Sex Assaults gathers that year-long investigation into one ebook. It is an important story that should be read by sports media, educators, parents, and students alike.

Monday
Jan072013

The Wall Street Journal on the ebooks slowdown 

An interesting essay by digital media pundit Nicholas Carr on the slowing pace of ebook adoption--one I admit to favoring because it pretty much tracks my own ideas about the ultimate place of the ebook in our media ecosphere.

E-books, in other words, may turn out to be just another format—an even lighter-weight, more disposable paperback. That would fit with the discovery that once people start buying digital books, they don't necessarily stop buying printed ones. In fact, according to Pew, nearly 90% of e-book readers continue to read physical volumes. The two forms seem to serve different purposes.

Wednesday
Dec262012

Laying low

So apparently most of the rest of the nearby states to the south and east of us are being pummelled with snow, and we may be due for a bit ourselves. It's going to be pretty quiet around here until we're into the new year. Until 2013!

Tuesday
Dec112012

Jali Becker on opinion, race, guns, politics, and books

David Sirota over at Salon.com recently addressed the controversy Bob Costas caused when he spoke out about gun control during the halftime of an NFL game. Costas was responding to the tragic murder-suicide of Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher. His comments raised some ire from those who argued that a football game was no place for “political” commentary, especially from a man whose role was to be a sportscaster. Sirota’s main argument is that in a democracy, those entitled to express an opinion should not be decided on the basis of so-called “expert” status. He also touches briefly on the interconnected roles of sports and politics in our society.

This immediately brought to my mind Agate Midway’s upcoming March 2013 release, Ramblers, which focuses on the 1963 Loyola Chicago Ramblers basketball team and the NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament. The Ramblers fielded what was then an extremely progressive lineup of four African-American starters, and their opponent in the championship game, Cincinnati, had three African-American starters. This was at a time when opportunities for African-Americans in sports (and elsewhere, of course) were extremely limited. Indeed, one of Loyola's opponents in the NCAA tournament, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, had to sneak out of town just to participate due to a longstanding "unwritten rule" forbidding Mississippi teams from playing against integrated teams.  

Author Michael Lenehan does an excellent job of painting the political and social pressures these teams faced while trying to play their game. Sports are one arena where talent always wins out, regardless of race, class, or creed. Ability earns respect, challenging assumptions about supposed inferiority. In 1963, the Loyola Chicago Ramblers were quite simply the best, and their success, as well as the success of other integrated teams, would go on to break down preconceptions about African Americans and their abilities.

Ramblers includes a wonderful anecdote that illustrates the power of sports to change people’s prejudices. In 1944, there was a game between the all-black North Carolina College Eagles basketball team and the all-white Duke University Medical School intramural team, which that year was reportedly better than the Duke varsity team. The game had to be carried out in absolute secrecy to avoid conflict in racially segregated Durham, North Carolina. The Eagles demolished the med students 88–44. Then the teams switched up and played a mixed game for fun, and afterward went back to the Eagles players’ dorm for refreshments. One of the Duke players wrote a letter to his parents a few days later:

Oh, I wonder if I told you that we played basketball against a Negro college team. Well, we did and we sure had fun and I especially had a good time, for most of the fellows playing with me were Southerners…. And when the evening was over, most of them had changed their views quite a lot.

Tuesday
Dec042012

Ladies and gentlemen--Eric Felten!

Making an encore performance in last week's Wall Street Journal was our favorite chronicler of cocktail culture, whose How's Your Drink? was Agate Surrey's first serious foray into publishing cocktail books. He's returned from his long absence from the spirits beat to address a topic that is dear to my heart--we drink better cocktails when we drink smaller cocktails. Vintage Felten.

Thursday
Nov292012

Copyediting and life

From Granta--one of the best personal testaments I've ever read about living with the mind of an editor.

Friday
Nov162012

How the sausage is made, latest installment

At the release party for Kate Moss's new book, the venerable supermodel modestly revealed the truth of her role in the book's creation: “Well, I didn’t actually have to write anything.”