Genuis or Mad Man?

Disclaimer:I’ve taken Sufjan’s fascination with deconstruction to heart in this post–it’s pretty scattered with no determinate direction.

Saturday was quite the day before THE day…I spent the early afternoon at the High Museum attempting to understand the madness of Salvador Dali, and later Sufjan Stevens was “my entertainment for the evening” at the Tabernacle. I didn’t connect the two until the following morning; both men exemplify the thin line between genius and crazy…or maybe thinking of the spectrum as a line fails to account for postmodern influence. Maybe it’s not a continuum, but a circle. Either way, these dudes are kooky and trippy as hell. Neither is limited to a particular style or medium. Both have a symbolic complexity beyond the ordinary and comprehensible, often (but not always) embodied in the way they title their work: The Remains of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse is as intricate as some of the tracks from Illinois like “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” or “A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the way in Which Sufjan Stevens has an existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze.”

Sufjan walked on stage with wings and a flock of musicians–not a new thing for him, but many in the audience have only google imaged this majesty. He opened with “Seven Swans,” and he slowly spun as he played to reveal the full spectacle of the wings to the audience. In person, he is…beyond description. It felt like Lady GaGa meets Indie rock—lots of costume changes and choreography, but in a subtle, deceptively smooth way. His movements are sharp but soft. Throughout the beginning of the show, I was mesmerized by his beauty.

Check it out in this video someone posted of Vesuvius. My favorite line of this song is “Sufjan, follow your heart…” like he’s talking to himself.

From the title track: he described this song as an “apocalyptic love song.” He must have used the word “apocalyptic” nine times throughout the evening.

For what you see is
Not fantasy, it’s
Not what it gets, but gives
This is the Age of Adz
Eternal living

Gloria, Gloria
It rots
Victoria, Victoria
It lives in all of us

To me, the name Victoria symbolizes colonization—English explorers naming their acquisitions after their queen. After all, land is gendered female. Do you think that like me, Suf is fascinated by the idea of colonization of the mind? Is he saying that each of us harbor a spirit of conquest in some way or another?

Sufjan dedicated “Get Real Get Right” to Royal Robertson, who Wikipedia describes here: “Numerous hallucinatory visions of space travel where aliens predicted the End of Days through complex numerological formulas and warned him about the dangers of adultery and fornication led Robertson to believe that he was a victim of a global female conspiracy. He believed that his ex-wife’s betrayal would be the cause of the cataclysmic destruction of humanity, and that his art was divinely sanctioned.” Sufjan told us that Robertson had been visited by angels, UFO’s, and even God himself on several occasions. Again, the line between genuis and mad man blurs. Robertson is responsible for all of the album artwork, and the screen displayed his trailer home with his prolific work scattered around. It was some crazy a$$ s***.

So where does my crushing stand after seeing him in person? In some ways, the lyrics “Boy, we can do much more together…it’s not so impossible,” from “Impossible Soul” ring true, but as Jeff aptly pointed out after one of his long pontifications on alternate realities and the space age, “You wouldn’t want to come home to that every night.” He’s so heady, it’s almost much too much. SufJohn (as he pronounced it falsely on stage one time) might be too deep even for Moxie, but the fascination persists.

And after all, he did pull through with Casimir Pulaski Day in the encore; I should never have doubted him.

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T-5

In 5 days I will begin to finish my graduate work.

Friday I take an oral exam, and Monday I take a written exam. Yesterday, one of my professors told me I could stop studying right now and do better than 90% of graduate students. I kiiiinda wish she hadn’t said that, but I think she could tell from my puffy eyes that it’s been a stressful few weeks. I needed some encouragement, but there is still a lot to do.

Imagine the scene: I was at Henri’s Bakery (popular hot spot for Buckhead Bettys and the like) with my GSU professor. We both looked the part: She in yoga garb coming from a nail appointment, me in a Vineyard Vines skirt and green polo…talking about militancy in the black nationalist movement. It was quite ironic. And I loved it.

Here’s what we discussed for the African-American portion of the exam. (This is 1 of 3 concentrations–others are gender and 19th century biography)

1. What is the African diaspora as a global concept?

2. In the US, who were important political and intellectual influences on the African diaspora model?

3. Discuss black nationalism in the United States.

4. How is historiography moving toward an elaboration of Sterling Stuckey? (historian who says African-American culture retained African influences in the middle passage)

5. What was the “Back-to-Africa” movement? Were all emigrationists seeking the same thing?

6. How did European colonialism and African independence influence black thinking about Africa?

7. What is the ideal black woman?

Then I ran into four sophomore girls stopping for sandwiches before shopping on the rainy Atlanta spring day, and I remembered that you can take the Buckhead out of the girl, but you can’t take the girl out of Buckhead…or something like that.

A MAN A PLAN A CANAL PANAMA

The world’s most famous palindrome… I’ve been thinking (and teaching) about the Panama canal this week, and I came across this poem by the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, about the injustice done to this land for the sake of economic gain. I don’t think my students can quite handle it, so I will place it here.

Panama, your geography granted you

a gift that no other land was given:

two oceans pushed forward to meet you:

the cordillera tapered naturally:

instead of one ocean, it gave you the water

of the two sovereigns of the foam;

the Atlantic kisses you with lips

that habitually kiss the grapes

while the Pacific Ocean shakes

in your honor its cyclonic nature…


but men from other parts

brought to you their yoke

and spilled nothing but whiskey

since they mortgaged your waistline:

and everything follows as it was planned

by devils and their lies:

with their money they built the canal;

they dug the earth with your blood

and now dollars are sent to New York

leaving you the graves…


like Panamanian wind asks

like a child that has lost its mother

where is the flag of my country?

(“History of a Canal,” XXXIII)

A few things jump out…

1. The juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy:both make up the story…although we can tell the overwhelming tone is grief and mourning, Neruda paints a beautiful scene.

2. The gendered language of the land: (“They mortgaged your waistline“) I am fascinated by the strong connections between gender and empire. Conquest, domination, patriarchy.

3. It’s personified and personal: it isn’t political propaganda, it’s calling out the emotion and asking for a response

4. When nations involve themselves in other nations, it is impossible to separate political, economic, and social motives. For example, when the United States purchased the canal zone, they did so by encouraging Panamanians to rebel against Colombia and become its own nation.

THIS is why English and history should be taught together. I’m just saying.

“Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness”

How is identity formed? Who forms it? What are the politics of knowledge? What is blackness?

A colleague and I watched an incredible documentary yesterday on one of the first people to wrestle with this issue.

Check out a preview of   “Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness”

Melville Herskovits, a Jewish-American scholar at Northwestern University, was instrumental in beginning the study of African-American history in the United States in the 20th century. He argued along with a few other anthropologists that race was cultural rather than biological, a truth few deny today. He also claimed that African Americans were strongly linked to Africa,unlike E. Franklin Frazier’s assertion that black culture was similar to white culture. Historians have long debated if black Americans have connections to Africa or their culture was stripped along with their dignity in the Middle Passage. Herskovits showed that African culture was connected to African-American culture. This might sound right on target, after all, how could a culture be extinguished completely on the other side of the Atlantic? But his study is more complicated than it seems at first. The documentary brings up questions of the study itself, not the answer to his original question.

Herskovits was a white guy discussing studying black culture, which angered many black people. One historian in the documentary asks, “Does the right to define and describe and observe a people give you power over those people?” Is this “colonization of the mind?” Do white people have the right to tell black people about their culture? How long will black Americans be the objects not the agents?

The documentary asks, “What is “objective study” and when does it become politicized? What happens when the scholar becomes the powerbroker? What are the consequences when we deny a people the right to define themselves? Who controls the production of knowledge, how and why?”

Needless to say, I highly recommend it. It’s on file here in our Diversity Library.