Thursday, February 4, 2016

Shipwreck narratives are central to the Age of Discovery.

Shipwreck narratives, writes Steve Mentz, portray humanity caught
between divine fiat and the insufficient promise of human agency.
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt, 1633.
Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

St. John's University

Humans love to tell stories that put humans at the center of things. In these fantasies, the Renaissance celebrates the rebirth of human knowledge, the Enlightenment shines its light on human realizations, and the postmodern era fractures human ideals. More recently, the Anthropocene shoulders its way into view with the power of Old Man Anthropos, the all-powerful Man who ruins everything.

These anthropocentric visions paper over the disturbing truth that human history overflows with unexpected turns. We seldom end up where we thought we were going. Stories about transformation and tragedy err when they claim more certainty about their destinations than they really have.

To put it more directly: the Age of Discovery was an Age of Shipwreck.

Modernity remains a contested term in literary and cultural scholarship, and controversies about the meaning of “early modernity” capture the unsettled nature of thinking about historical change and continuity. Ideas about transformation have long dominated scholarship of the literature and culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, whether that transformation appears as a “Renaissance” of classical forms, a “Reformation” of Christian cultures, or through more particular discourses such as skepticism, political republicanism, or the rise of empirical science. My book Shipwreck Modernity supplements these human-centered visions with disaster. Adding the modifier “shipwreck” to the modernity of European culture’s first age of globalization minimizes human control and relocates unplanned errancy at the center of world history.

Shipwreck modernity describes an understanding of historical change that is impersonal rather than humanized, material as well as ideological, and driven by random catastrophes more than singular acts of vice or virtue. Turning to shipwreck follows the offshore trajectory of recent scholarship in the oceanic or “blue” humanities that treats the sea as a corrective to pastoral dreams of harmony. This saltwater approach to human cultural history places the encounter with what oceanographers call the World Ocean at the center of the global movement of European culture. Ocean currents and prevailing winds drove European ships around the globe, carrying and encountering viruses, plants, animals, languages, cultures, and catastrophes. The disasters and narratives of hybridity that emerged comprise a global shipwreck. The rapid integration of the ecologies of Afro-Eurasia with the Americas created disruption and change on a massive scale that continue to resonate today. Shipwreck modernity brought smallpox to the Americas and the potato to Ireland, while disrupting local ecologies around the globe.

No trope in the oceanic archive resonates more than shipwreck, an ancient story of disorientation and disruption that punctuates Western literary culture from Odysseus and Jonah to Prospero and Robinson Crusoe. Especially during periods of maritime expansion, shipwreck narratives portray humanity caught between divine fiat and the insufficient promise of human agency. The technical labors of mariners in crisis, as portrayed by canonical authors such as Shakespeare and Defoe as well as common sailors and others, create allegories of humans struggling to endure nonhuman environments.

Representations of shipwreck in and beyond the early modern period suggest three subcategories or interpretive clusters for human-ocean encounters: wet globalization, blue ecocriticism, and shipwreck modernity. Each of these phrases identifies a trajectory for blue humanities scholarship.

Wet Globalization: Twenty-first century responses to globalization sometimes fly above the earth in passenger planes. The blue humanities recall that historically and still today, the global economy floats on ocean currents.

Blue Ecocriticism: The sea’s overwhelming physical presence in the natural environment emphasizes that this element, long marginalized by green eco-thinking, can revolutionize ecological thought in a post-sustainability context.

Shipwreck Modernity: From an oceanic perspective, the story of emerging modernity resembles a catastrophe-ridden epic of ocean-fueled expansion and its attendant disasters.

Responding to the alienating pressure of the ocean on human bodies and institutions makes the blue humanities a form of post-human investigation. With cognates in post-sustainability ecocriticism, cyborg studies, catastrophe studies, and other discourses that separate humans from the spaces that comfort them, the oceanic turn in humanities scholarship combines ancient narratives that remain vibrant in contemporary culture with a new emphasis on dynamism in the relationship between humans and their environments.

Shipwreck Modernity refuses sentimental consolations such as green sustainability or political utopianism. But it does not sink into the depths without hope. The shock of immersion has positive lessons as well as critical ones. The book ends in the “bright light of shipwreck,” alongside the hybrid vision it names the Bookfish, with “Seven Shipwrecked Ecological Truths.” Seeing catastrophes as opportunities means seeking an ecological future with wet swimmers rather than dry sailors, in an oceanic world in which survival, while only temporary, gives pleasure. This wet and disorienting vision shines a light on early modern ecological globalization that resonates with our post-climate change present.


Steve Mentz is author of Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550–1719. He is professor of English at St. John's University in New York City.

"A compelling, provocative, even lyrical piece of scholarship that will undoubtedly inaugurate new critical discussions in the fields of maritime humanities, eco-criticism, early modern English literature, and shipwreck studies."
—Josiah Blackmore, Harvard University

Monday, February 1, 2016

What are the implications of philanthropic relationships in education?

University of Pennsylvania

On a spring day in 2010, I interviewed Sebastian Thomas, head of the in-house nonprofit organization at the public New York City high school at which I taught for two years (referred to here as “College Prep”).

Thomas was responsible for organizing the benefits, films, flyers, media, and other forms of PR that “sold” our unscreened, traditional public school to private-sector funders, who supplemented the resources we were getting from the state.

It wasn’t hard to make our school look like a worthy cause. Our numbers looked good. College Prep’s student body was predominantly black and brown, and teachers were predominantly white. About 80% of the student body was eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Unlike many urban schools that served a similar demographic, College Prep boasted a 93% graduation rate and a 97% college matriculation rate for its students. Due to  Thomas’s hard work, donors to College Prep’s nonprofit included, among others, a corporate firm in midtown Manhattan, the Gates foundation, and the Robin Hood Foundation, as well as more than 300 individuals who contributed $5,000 or more.

During our interview, Thomas stated that through his work soliciting donations for the Foundation, he felt like he was “effecting change.” Yet he expressed ambivalence, stating that he had to “constantly work with people so that the messaging about the school is not exploitative.” While he believed that this was important, he asked:

If some rich, important person has his or her heartstrings tugged by the story of so-and-so, and that person writes us a check for like $30,000 and then we are able to do all this stuff with it, is that okay? I don’t know. I am still asking myself that question. I don’t know.

Thomas shared an anecdote about NBC wanting to film a show that would feature Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, giving a college scholarship to a student with a “big sob story.” Thomas pulled aside one student, Kadeem, who had been raised by his grandmother in an impoverished section of the city, and asked him if he was interested. But, he advised Kadeem, he should only agree to this if he was comfortable. Thomas explained to Kadeem, “TV producers are always looking for the human-interest story, even if ironically it takes the humanity out of the person who they are interviewing.” He advised Kadeem not to sell himself out, but told him: “sometimes we buy ourselves opportunity by telling people what they want to hear.” In sharing this information both with Kadeem and again with me in the interview, Thomas expressed his ambivalence about his work. On the one hand, College Prep is served well by access to important private-sector resources. On the other hand, in order to access the resources, the institution has to conform to, and in fact rely on, a very specific image that both conflates and reifies problematic stereotypes about race, class, and place: the needy (but college-bound) black or brown student, the white (female) savior teacher, and the generous white (male) corporate funder.

In fact, while at the school, I attended a posh benefit at the corporate office of one of the school’s sponsors. At a meeting beforehand, Thomas coached me, along with a few other teachers and students he chose to attend, to “sell” and “talk up” the school. Students were to attend the benefit in uniform, teachers were to “dress like teachers,” we were not to walk around the room in groups larger than two, and we were not to eat much (since we were supposed to focus on talking up the school) nor were we to partake from the two open bars at the event. The keynote speaker, a white female corporate lawyer, emphasized the neediness of College Prep’s college-bound students, and funders dropped checks made out to the foundation into a box in the back of the room as they left. The revenue from that benefit equated to one-third of the Foundation’s budget for the year.

While some of our students came from low-income families, others came from middle-class ones. While some of our students would be the first in their families to attend college, others had parents with college and graduate degrees. While some of our students were homeless or lived in shelters, others went home every day to traditional two-parent nuclear families. Yet in the keynote speech at the event, the narrative about College Prep students was not one that allowed for diversity of experience or collective solidarity. Rather, it was one that constructed College Prep as a unique miracle, a school that worked with kids who, despite coming from the most challenging of circumstances, were set up for college matriculation and success due to their hardworking teachers and the generosity of funders.

What are the implications of philanthropic relationships in education? At every level at College Prep, I saw great ambivalence from teachers, students and administrators about the school’s relationship with its philanthropic funders, and an implicit awareness that we were not healing, rather we were deepening the wounds wrought by centuries of white supremacist and capitalist plunder, pillage and violence against black, brown, poor, and female bodies in the United States.

In an interview, Principal Sands, a white woman who had been an English teacher at the time, stated, “I really do think it is about love. It’s about loving the children as people and it’s about loving them so much so that you want what’s best for them. And what’s best for them so often doesn’t look like what your track was.”

We think of love as an individual feeling, act, or intention and in many ways we think of solidarity in the same way. Indeed, at College Prep, it seems that while it might be important to practice love and solidarity on an individual level, this is not enough. Rather, through agonistic solidarity, we might reach a place of what Tricia Rose, bell hooks, and James Baldwin have termed as both affirmational and transformational love, a love that is grounded in students’ nuanced and diverse lives, agency, and experience but also sees the potential for growth and collective resistance against schools’ dependence on inequity, competition, and marketing students for resources. This kind of love and solidarity also would lead to policy shifts: perhaps changing our tax structure so that we have fair funding formulas in each city and state that lead to equity, as well as ensuring that people have access to affordable food and good health care, and ending environmental destruction. Policy shifts in the interest of affirmational and transformational love and agonistic solidarity would ensure that teachers are well supported, with strong, community-engaged unions that prioritize the experiences of children and families, and work for racial and class justice. “Love” in the form of philanthropy and privatization of schools, or in the form of individual actions or feelings does not lead us to a place of equity, agonistic solidarity and healing. Through both policy and practice, perhaps we can work toward collective resistance and creative alternatives.


Amy Brown is author of A Good Investment? Philanthropy and the Marketing of Race in an Urban Public School. She is an educational anthropologist and a faculty member in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

"A Good Investment? is a well-developed and well-executed ethnography. Amy Brown’s ability to tell a broad story about the privatization and marketization, as well as their enactment, of public schooling is exemplary." —Jill Koyama, University of Arizona

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Mourning what matters: On David Bowie and Laquan McDonald.

Assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University

It seems everyone I know—and I mostly know a lot of aging, white, GenX hipsters—spent January 10th “mourning” David Bowie. I put it in quotes because I’m not sure we know what mourning really is. Or because what we did the day the news broke about Bowie’s death, in the semi-private headspace allotted by social media, on our phones or at our computers—maybe this needs a different name besides mourning. Whatever it was, the centerpiece became the two videos Bowie had released just before he died, Lazarus and Blackstar. The videos read like goodbye letters, because Bowie had known he was terminally ill when he made them.

You may have watched Laquan McDonald die sometime in the last months of 2015. He was the seventeen-year-old boy who was shot by Chicago police in 2014; after a long litigation that revealed an apparent cover-up by the police and city government, dashboard camera footage of the shooting was made public in late 2015. McDonald walks jerkily away from the camera, hitching up his jeans. Then he drops, as police in the left of the frame empty their guns into him. His arm moves, and then it stops. The video is longer, but you probably saw it played in a loop: the boy’s quick, slightly manic pace at an angle away from the camera, headed for the sidewalk. The unconscious twitch of his hands at his hips as he pulls up his pants—awkward and boyish but also afraid. Maybe he is remembering that black boys with baggy pants are called gangsters and thugs. You see him walking and fearing and wanting out with every step, until he drops. Not falling, not staggering back, but dropping. I lost count after five loops in a single segment of the NBC Nightly News.

Two deaths, two bodies, two corpses. Two images that have become afterlives. McDonald’s death is real, but not gory or explicit. The image proves AndrĂ© Bazin’s point that the power of the photographic image comes from its process of becoming, rather than the fidelity of the end result: to watch McDonald die is to intrude upon the most singular and private of moments, to see time itself in motion. To watch it in a loop is to experience the sickening vertigo of an unnatural intimacy, a pornographic approximation of the intimacy of witness. Meanwhile, Bowie’s death in Blackstar and Lazarus is a shamanistic high-definition evocation, but not the real thing. With their imagery of illness, death, resurrection, and effigy, the videos only reinforced the notion that Bowie was indeed a “star man” who had been called back to his forever home on Mars. Blackstar isn’t a gravestone, but an empty casket.

I think mourning is care work that happens over and among real bodies, and what we as a public have, in both cases, is only the image of the body. As care work, mourning is feminized, in the sense that it is both associated with women and done by women. Widows are defined by the departed, expected to work to tend his memory, and often discouraged from remarriage. In times when death and mourning were more closely interwoven with everyday life, women sewed burial shrouds, washed corpses, and plaited intricate mourning brooches out of hair. Women sat for photographs with their dead children; their tears were social in that they carried the burden of a shared emotion. The difference now is that death has been banished from our everyday lives. It’s not only that we tend to die less often of illness or accident and more often of diseases like cancer or heart failure, though this is true. Corpses have been banished from our homes. Their care now falls to licensed professionals who embalm in funeral homes where the laboratory underground is concealed from those who visit the dead in the parlor-like hush of the viewing rooms.

A November 2015 memorial to Laquan McDonald in Chicago.

In this context—of the disavowed and yet crucial work of mourning as care—it is clearer how much was at stake in the public release of the video. McDonald’s mother, Tina Hunter, had already settled with the city of Chicago and did not want the video released. It wasn’t until a journalist sued the city for the release of the video that it became public, months after the settlement. We can’t know for sure, but one possibility is that Hunter did not want the world to see her son like that. Yet the context of the situation demanded witnesses, demanded justice—and that ultimately trumped her rights as a mother to mourn how she liked.

This compulsive visuality where privacy must give way to juridical or even ethical exigencies stands in stark contrast to Bowie or indeed most celebrity death. This contrast is one way of understanding how the work of mourning figures into structural inequalities like racism and sexism. Bowie’s death was private, even though his celebrity would have made that privacy difficult and probably expensive to maintain. He was at home, surrounded by loved ones. And he was prepared: he said goodbye not only to his family, but to his fans as well. McDonald’s family expressly requested the video of his death not be released; Bowie lived just long enough to release his own posthumous work. Bowie’s family mourned him: they held him one last time, they got him ready to go. McDonald’s body was state’s evidence, one of many black boys shot in the street that year, and his family was not able to mourn his passing as it happened.

It also might help explain why the public mourning of Bowie’s passing was actually a denial of death, a mummification. Mourning is a privilege extended to those who are allowed full occupancy of their bodies. More explicitly, mourning is effaced care work done by women or other feminized and disavowed people, and they are allowed time and privacy to grieve only when the bodies they mourn are considered worthy. Even the ‘mourning’ that my friends and me did for Bowie was time snatched away from employers and life worlds. If you are a working mother in the South Side of Chicago, if you need to take a day and just cry, you lose your job. Let alone if it takes you more than a day or a month or a year or a decade to get over the loss of your child.

When I think of McDonald, I think of his mother. I think of how women’s bodies must somehow make and do in a system that fundamentally estranges them from themselves. The same law that dictates we all must die still dictates that only women can bear children. After that—after the body has been taxed to its limits by the strain of creating another life—there’s all the work of making a family. I know, I do this work—and I’m a white middle-class professor who has loads of help. I’m not a single black mother who is battling with the foster care system to keep her family together.

When women do the work of giving birth to and caring for children and of nursing the sick and the elderly, their bodies become a site of another kind of logic that exceeds wages and value. They do this work, and yet they must live in a world that disavows or silently appropriates it. Here I am nurtured by their bravery and I am heartened by the slender ties of kinship and love that might build a different world. Tina Hunter’s grief is a part of that fragile web. And that loop of her son dying tears at it, even as it seeks justice for his murder.

If David Bowie’s Blackstar is a monument to death in the age of the image, let Laquan McDonald’s legacy be a vision of its undoing. Work to recognize his loss in the same register of material care that was precisely unintelligible to his murderers. Instead of watching that video of him again, think about his mother holding him, and how she might have liked to hold him one last time, away from the morgue, before the city took his body and autopsied it, and held it as evidence. One example is the die-in staged by Chicago protesters at City Hall. The vulnerability of that physical pile of bodies indexes the care and reverence for human life that was so woefully disrespected when McDonald and so many like him were murdered. It brings death and grief back into the conversation, making a space for the dignity of loss. This is a way to let death live so that grief may be a site of resistant meaning-making for the living.


Margaret Schwartz is author of Dead Matter: The Meaning of Iconic Corpses. She is assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University.

"In a deep, sophisticated, and riveting book, Margaret Schwartz shows us how corpses become focal points for collective meaning—in nation construction, in violence and martyrdom, and in the passion of fandom. In explaining how the dead circulate among the living, Dead Matter gives us the tools to better understand death as a social and communicative phenomenon, and, one hopes, build more thoughtful relations with the dead."—Jonathan Sterne, author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format and The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction

"Dead Matter bridges important theorizations of death, the human corpse, and mediation. This book is a critical connecting point between seemingly disparate fields of study."—John Troyer, Deputy Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Recovering the fading histories of America's postwar suburban churches.

American architect Edward A. Sovik designed the Riverside Bible Chapel
in Story City, Iowa (1949). In her new book, author Gretchen Buggeln
shows how architects and suburban congregations joined forces to work
out a vision of how modernist churches might reinvigorate Protestant
Photos by Gretchen Buggeln.


Mention “postwar suburban church” and you are likely to conjure images of parking lots filled with late-model cars, flocks of children dressed for Sunday school, and a full schedule of weekly social activities and obligations. There is truth to this image. There is also some truth to the claim, often cynically delivered, that these were “country clubs” more than communities of faith, homes for consumers-in-training, refugees from the gritty problems of the city. But that is a stereotype. What do we actually know about the “seven-day-a-week” suburban church?

As a student of ordinary architecture and American religion, postwar suburban churches—especially innovative modern ones, with their quirky shapes and domestic character—aroused my curiosity. For nearly a decade, I journeyed around the Midwest to look at buildings, trying to understand the postwar culture they signify. Along the way I met people who built them, worshipped in their sanctuaries, took their children to Sunday school, and served the community through congregational programs. Through these conversations, I learned how these churches gave individuals and families a spiritual center in a time of rapid and exciting—if sometimes bewildering—change. The rise of the postwar suburban church was an extraordinary episode in the history of American religion, one embodied in these buildings and held in the memory of our oldest generation of Americans.

Stan Boie in front of Hope Lutheran Church, Park Forest,
Illinois, 2007.

One July day in 2007, near the beginning of my research, I met Stan Boie at his small ranch house in Park Forest, Illinois. Today a struggling south suburban Chicago community, Park Forest was once hailed as a model community. Young families flocked here, eager to get on with their lives after the war, relieved to find affordable new housing and civic-minded neighbors. Here they built churches and schools, shopped, made new friends, and raised a generation of Americans. Stan, a Missouri Synod Lutheran, was delighted to find a house in what seemed at the time to be a “miraculous” place. He was a founding member of Hope Lutheran congregation, and involved with building their “first unit” church, dedicated in 1957 (Charles E. Stade). Stan spoke with humor and fondness about his congregation, their mistakes, their joys, and the centering it gave to a generation eager to move forward. He laughed as he told me about flooding the churchyard for an ice rink one winter, or singing Christmas carols with a twist—“Hark the Herald Ad-Men Sing,” or “O Little Town of Worn-Out Men.” Stan described a rigorous program of Christian education. And he wondered, quietly, if his church, and many others, took too much for granted, neglecting to think more deeply about the future.

In the Tolleston neighborhood of Gary, Indiana, St. Augustine’s Episcopal mission, an African American congregation, found a home in 1955. Real estate practices kept these rising professionals out of the market in many parts of Gary, but here they built ranch houses and new schools, made friends, and built their church (Edward D. Dart, 1959). One Sunday in 2012, Paula DeBois, an airline pilot who grew up in the church and has taken profound interest in the congregation’s legacy, introduced me to a dozen octogenarians at the post-worship luncheon in the undercroft. These devoted members told me about their lives in the 1950s and 1960s, their dreams for their children, their pride in their church and community. The neighborhood now struggles. Schools are shuttered and many houses are in shambles. But the remnant of the congregation hangs on, a few dozen worshippers gathering each Sunday in their recently landmarked building.

Members of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, Gary, Indiana,
at Partners for Sacred Places workshop, 2014.

The congregation of Westwood Lutheran Church in Saint Louis Park, Minnesota, had a vision for community that began with making a place for children and teenagers. Their first building, in fact, was devoted to education and recreation. Westwood’s subsequent sanctuary (Edward Sovik, 1963) has an unusual feature for an American church: a front balcony for antiphonal singing. In 1955, Ronald Nelson, a young choirmaster from Rockford, Illinois, joined the congregation. He had a vision for a liturgical arts and music school that would involve the congregation’s children in worship and the Lutheran tradition. In its heyday, two hundred students met for several hours each Saturday morning for art and, especially, music. This was no superficial social attachment, but a deep immersion in the resources of a religious tradition.

My conversations with people like Stan Boie, Ronald Nelson, and Paula DeBois and her friends challenge assumptions about the suburban church. These congregations did reflect the prejudices and assumptions of postwar culture, but these communities also encouraged their members to be active for the good of their communities, to grow in faith, and to care about the rest of the world. (I like to point out that it was a Methodist youth pastor in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge who nurtured the political imagination of a young Hillary Rodham.)

We need to hear these stories while we still can.


Gretchen Buggeln is author of The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America. She holds the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University. She is also author of Temples of Grace: The Material Transformation of Connecticut’s Churches, 1790–1840.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Gail Langer Karwoski on writing the story of America's first legally married gay couple.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States announced that "same-sex
couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry."
Photograph by Angela Jimenez.

Writer Gail Langer Karwoski worked closely with Michael McConnell and Jack Baker, America's first legally married gay couple, to tell their story in The Wedding Heard 'Round the World: America's First Gay Marriage. See Gail's first piece about the project here.


On a spring day in 2012, more than 40 years after I left Minneapolis, I got a call from Jack Baker. It had been decades since I’d last heard from him or Michael McConnell. I no longer had any idea what they were up to.

Never much for small talk, Jack got straight to the point: Gay marriage was sweeping the news, and the time had come for them to tell their story. Would I be willing to help?

Me? Since I had moved to Georgia, I’d taught in public schools, raised two daughters with my professor husband, written more than a dozen children’s books, and turned into a grandmother. I was flabbergasted. Why me?

“That’s exactly why we want you,” Jack said. “When it comes to gay rights, you don’t have your own agenda. You’ll help us tell our story as we remember it, as it happened. You won’t twist the facts.”

Michael got on the line. He took the warm fuzzy approach: “Why don’t you come up here for a few days, Gail? Let’s just talk. We’ve saved all our papers, you won’t have to do tons of boring research.”

He went on: “Gay marriage is the big issue of the day. Everybody wants to know how it all began.”

Michael reached out to the mom in me. My children’s books are based on how things were—what shaped us, where we came from. “Marriage equality,” he said, “is the heart of gay rights. Without the right to marry, gay men and women will never really be equal. Without the right to love openly and with the same legal status as straight couples, we’ll always be stuck in the closet.”

I was intrigued. As a children’s book writer, I’ve always believed it’s my job to put my words to work making this world a better place. But after such a long time, could I collaborate with Jack and Michael? They would need to open not only their records, but also their hearts and their most intimate memories to me if I was going to help them tell their story. And life had taken us down very different paths.

“Not so different, really. You know what a longstanding marriage means,” Michael said. “You and Chester have been married over 40 years, and so have Jack and I. Look, why don’t you come for a visit?”

When I got their call, I was putting the finishing touches on a middle-grades novel, and I’d be starting a new project soon. I talked it over with Chester. He thought the idea was fascinating. Maybe I should consider it.

I flew to Minneapolis. Jack and Michael picked me up. I wouldn’t have recognized them. The handsome 30-year-olds that I last saw in 1974 had become old men. Jack is still slim as a boy, but his once-piercing eyes have softened. Michael, ever neat and stylish, now has a mustache and beard framing his elfin grin.

From left: Michael, Gail, and Jack at Michael and Jack's
home in Minneapolis.

After a long catch-up over a delicious dinner (Michael is an accomplished chef), I went up to bed. I tossed and turned. The bed just didn’t fit me; it was hard as a brick. Maybe this was an omen? Michael and Jack had re-routed history by insisting on marriage equality. But was I the writer who could capture their accomplishments?

Finally, I got up and found some pillows to pad the mattress. I decided I’d tell them this had been a mistake. We’d have a nice reunion and then I’d help them locate a writer who could do the job.

In the morning, Michael noticed the clumps of pillows on the bed. Laughing, he showed me how to adjust their sleep-number mattress to fit me. That was a sign. As we talked at breakfast, I began to realize this project fit me perfectly. I knew how to explain complex material. I would be capturing the world that we had known, showing how we were and why things needed to change. Plus, I had Michael and Jack’s complete trust.

During that first visit, we agreed that marriage was the heart and soul of their story. It’s what made their struggle unique and memorable. So we would begin the narrative when they became a “we.” Our goal was to reveal the up-close-and-personal side of events, so we chose the memoir format. Michael, with his friendly, inviting personality, would be the narrator. As we talked, the story began to slide into chapters.

Michael and Jack on September 3rd, 1971.
Photograph by Paul Hagen.

Two months later, I returned for our next session. Our collaboration found its own rhythm. We sat around their dining room table and I took notes. They argued, like all married couples, about the small details of a scene—who had been there, how long a meeting lasted, where people were seated, etc. Then we’d consult reports and news articles, matching memories with facts. My arms loaded with notes and documents, I’d trudge upstairs to Michael’s office, which he turned over to me whenever I visited. I’d work up a rough draft and run off a copy. Michael and Jack each read it and jotted comments in the margins.

Michael hunted for emotional accuracy. In one scene, I wrote that he was so angry with Jack for an insensitive action that he was ready to call it quits. Michael crossed that out. No, he explained; I had misunderstood. He’d never threatened, not even in his mind, to leave Jack. Once he made the commitment to become Jack’s lover, it meant forever. He also checked each scene for “vernacular” accuracy. He explained that in the McConnell family, the correct term was “Mother and Daddy”—never would he call his parents “Mom and Dad.”

Jack, ever the lawyer, checked for legal accuracy. If there was a question about translating lawyer-speak into common prose, we got out the documents and pored over their wording. Jack made fewer notes on the margins, but he returned to the same point over and over in his dogged determination to be absolutely correct in the communication of legal information.

We tailored our work routine around our personal habits. Jack sleeps in snatches. He’s in bed at nine and up by four to have his breakfast and put in a few hours of mental work before he catches his second sleep. Michael prefers to stay up until the wee hours. He winds down gradually for bed. I go to sleep around eleven and awaken at seven to work for an hour or so before breakfast.

Jack would join me at breakfast, and I’d explain what I planned to write that day. When I went back upstairs, Jack would pull out relevant documents and update the running timeline for each chapter. Michael would jot down the people we should talk to or info we needed to dig up, like the songs of the period. In late afternoon, Jack and I would break for a several-mile walk while Michael prepared dinner. Then we’d gather around their table and review our progress as we ate. We’d go over their comments. Afterward, we spent the evening in their cozy upstairs den. We each savored a square of dark chocolate and a glass of wine as we watched the evening news. Michael has a large collection of movies, and he’d suggest a video. Sometimes we watched documentaries about gay history. Other nights, we watched Oscar winners, formulaic detective films, or even ridiculous spoofs. If the movie had sad moments, Michael set a box of tissues between us on their leather sofa because he knew we’d both cry. Jack would watch with us for a few minutes, then he’d say goodnight and go downstairs to sleep.

On most visits, we’d get two chapters on paper. It was intense and exhilarating, and when I flew home, I was drained. In Georgia, I’d resume work but at a slower pace, sharing drafts with Michael and Jack by e-mail. Altogether, we spent nearly 4 years preparing Michael’s memoir. Gradually, our friendship deepened into something akin to family. Their words became my words, their struggles my struggle. Looking back, I realize this is what inspires all activism: no man or woman is ever truly free until we all are. Nobody is fully nourished until we are all fed. And I’m proud their story – my story – has ended in marriage equality for all Americans.

Gail Langer Karwoski is an author and educator based in Athens, Georgia. She worked closely with Michael McConnell and Jack Baker, America's first legally married gay couple, to tell their story in The Wedding Heard 'Round the World: America's First Gay Marriage.

At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, January 26, the Elmer L. Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota will host a book launch for Michael, Jack, and Gail. All three will be on hand to speak and to sign books. The night will mark the opening of an exhibit based on Michael's and Jack's archived material. The Michael McConnell Files were donated to the University of Minnesota's Tretter Collection for GLBT Studies in October 2015.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The times they were a'changing. We were, too.

Michael McConnell and Jack Baker, America's first legally married gay couple,
apply for a marriage license in 1970 in Minnesota. Photograph by R.Bertrand Heine,
courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Writer Gail Langer Karwoski worked closely with Michael McConnell and Jack Baker, America's first legally married gay couple, to tell their story in The Wedding Heard 'Round the World: America's First Gay Marriage. Michael and Jack were featured on the front page of the New York Times in May.


This memoir begins during the 1960s, when unrest on the nation’s campuses bubbled over and spilled onto the streets. Voices of antiwar activists mixed with civil rights marchers and bra-burning feminists. It was the era when America’s youth reexamined the menu for success—from boardroom to bedroom.

And it was the era when gay men and women marched out of the closet to declare their pride. In 1967, the first gay student organization formed at Columbia University. In June of 1969, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village became a battlefield where embittered drag queens confronted the cops that harassed them during frequent police raids. Now known as the Stonewall Riots, these violent confrontations are often pinpointed as the start of the modern gay rights movement. The first of what would eventually be called Gay Pride marches were held the following June, 1970, in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Chicago.

To pin my personal landmarks onto this larger board: 1970 was the year that my young husband and I graduated from college in New England. Eager for fresh experiences, we decided to get our graduate degrees in the Midwest, a section of the country that we’d never seen. So we packed our VW bus and moved to Minneapolis. As we unpacked our suitcases, another couple was also unpacking. Like us, they were young, educated, and free-spirited. Their names were Jack Baker and Michael McConnell, and they would soon cause a cultural earthquake when they openly declared “I do” in the nation’s first gay marriage.

While I took classes for my master’s degree at the University of Minnesota, I heard about Jack Baker. Actually, everybody—on campus and beyond—heard about Jack Baker. A law student at the University of Minnesota, he was elected the first openly gay student body president. Not only that, he did such a fine job representing student interests that he would win an unprecedented second term.

Jack's infamous "shoes" poster, 1971.
Photograph by Paul Hagen.

Jack’s personal life was more newsworthy than his campus accomplishments: He and his lover, Michael McConnell, had applied for a Minnesota marriage license in 1970. Promptly denied by officials, they took the issue to court. Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota had offered a job to Michael as a librarian, but the Board of Regents refused to approve his appointment. So Michael mounted a lawsuit to protest overt job discrimination.

Two ongoing lawsuits didn’t dismantle Jack and Michael’s dream: They came up with another way to form a legal family unit—by adoption. In the process, Jack changed his name, and the couple managed to obtain a valid marriage license from a rural county. In September of 1971, they enjoyed a widely publicized wedding ceremony in Minneapolis, officiated by a Methodist minister. Their nuptials made headlines in newspapers as far away as New York and California. They were interviewed on TV and featured by Look magazine.

My history intersected with Jack and Michael’s story when, my master’s degree in hand, I applied for a writing job.

As student body president, Jack had campaigned for and insisted on students’ rights. He proposed that a student sit as a nonvoting member of every Board of Regents committee (a tradition that continues to this day on the University of Minnesota campus). He established a student-owned and student-run corporation. This corporation wanted to hire somebody to write their press releases and reports. I heard about the job and thought the work would be energizing—heady, as well as important. The world was a’changing, and I wanted to help make change happen.

Gail Langer Karwoski is an author and educator based in Athens, Georgia. She worked closely with Michael McConnell and Jack Baker, America's first legally married gay couple, to tell their story in The Wedding Heard 'Round the World: America's First Gay Marriage.

At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, January 26, the Elmer L. Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota will host a book launch for Michael, Jack, and Gail. All three will be on hand to speak and to sign books. The night will mark the opening of an exhibit based on Michael's and Jack's archived material. The Michael McConnell Files were donated to the University of Minnesota's Tretter Collection for GLBT Studies in October 2015.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Recipe spectacular: Memories of Potica.


My grandparents were poor, yet they saved money all year long in a tin coffee can to celebrate Christmas with their ten grandkids in St. Paul. Every Christmas they arrived from the Iron Range in their blue station wagon loaded to the top with Christmas packages and baked goods.

Of all the many homemade gifts (including monkey puppets made from socks), my favorite was Grandma Dolly's homemade Potica bread. Every year she elaborated on how big a task it was—how she'd rolled out dough so thin it covered a large table; how she'd spread a paste of cinnamon, butter, and finely ground walnuts; how gently-and-oh-so-carefully she tightly rolled the expanse of dough, sealed its edges, and then cut it into loaf lengths before baking.

I continue her tradition each year with a much easier Potica recipe. Rather than a few days, my recipe requires a few hours and will never be truly authentic. Yet as the scent of baked cinnamon, walnuts, and oven-fresh bread fills my kitchen, I always think fondly of my grandparents, who passed on a love of Potica and so much more.

Illustration of Potica. Does not represent the actual recipe.
Image source: Creative Commons.


Mary Casanova's "easier" Potica recipe comes from Betty Crocker's International Cookbook.

Yield: 2 coffee cakes

1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
3/4 cup lukewarm milk (scalded, then cooled)
1/2 cup margarine or butter, softened
3 eggs
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 to 5 cups all-purpose flour
Walnut Filling (see below)

FOR WALNUT FILLING: Mix all of the following ingredients together.

2 1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup margarine or butter, softened
1 egg
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Dissolve yeast in warm water in large bowl. Stir in milk, margarine, eggs, sugar, salt, and 3 cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to make dough easy to handle.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place in greased bowl; turn greased side up. Cover; let rise in warm place until double, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. (Dough is ready if indentation remains when touched.)

Punch down dough; divide into halves. Roll each half into rectangle, 15 x 12 inches, on lightly floured surface. Spread half the filling over each rectangle. Roll up tightly, beginning at 15-inch side. Pinch edge of dough into roll to seal well. Stretch roll to make even.

With sealed edges down, coil into snail shapes on lightly greased cookie sheets. Cover; let rise until double, about 1 hour. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake until golden brown, 35 to 45 minutes. Brush with margarine if desired.


For more holiday recipes, check out past posts:
From 2015:
-Eric Dregni's gravet laks.
-Betsy Bowen's bird feed for Christmas Eve.
-Sue Leaf's meringue cookies.
-Jeff Manuel's favorite hotdish.

From 2012:
-Beatrice Ojakangas's Finnish Christmas Stars and Old Danish Christmas Kringle.
-Brenda Langton's cranberry tart.
-Jenny Breen's brussels sprouts with honey horseradish.
-Atina Diffley's corn chowder.
-Helene Henderson's Swedish pancakes.
-Beth Dooley's sweet potato salad.


Mary Casanova grew up on the edge of St. Paul and lives in Ranier, Minnesota. She is author of more than 30 books for children and young adults, including Frozen, Moose Tracks, Wolf Shadows, When Eagles Fall, and the forthcoming Wake Up, Island.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Recipe spectacular: Taconite Tater Tot Hotdish

Early visitors to Minnesota's Iron Range (here at Missabe Mountain Mine in 1937)
were meant to stand in awe at the size and complexity of open pit iron ore mining.
As Jeff Manuel writes, there has long been a close connection between politics and
iron ore mining (and, incidentally, hotdish) in Minnesota.
Image: Minnesota Historical Society Collection, HD3.112 p59.


During my years of research for Taconite Dreams, I came across some interesting taconite-themed recipes. One of my favorites is Taconite Tater Tot Hotdish. This recipe comes from Senator Amy Klobuchar, who submitted it to win a 2011 hotdish competition among Minnesota’s congressional delegation. I made this recipe at home this fall. I can’t say that it has any special connection to the holidays—or taconite for that matter—but it’s the kind of hearty hotdish that’s good on a cold northern Minnesota night.

It’s not surprising that the recipe comes from a senator. As I discuss in my book, there has long been a close connection between politics and iron mining in Minnesota. For DFL politicians like Klobuchar, the Iron Range is a crucial voting bloc that can potentially swing a statewide election. Yet it has been difficult to solve the region’s longstanding economic woes with public policy, which makes cultural appeals to the Iron Range, like taconite-themed recipes, more important than ever for Minnesota’s politicians.

If you need a drink to go with your hotdish, try the taconite special. This was a cocktail made by a Silver Bay bar specifically for engineer Edward W. Davis in the 1960s. After working for decades to perfect the taconite process, Davis retired to Silver Bay in the 1950s to be close to the Reserve Mining Company plant named in his honor: the E. W. Davis Works. He joked to reporters that he was the “undisputed patriarch” of Silver Bay and a bar in town made the taconite special just for him. According to Davis, the recipe was “plenty of gin and orange juice, with a maraschino cherry for trim” (Carl Hennemann, “He Hopes Amendment Will Pass-Dr. Edward Davis: ‘Mr. Taconite,’” St. Paul Dispatch, October 21, 1964).


Sen. Klobuchar's winning recipe (along with a lot of tasty non-winning recipes).

Check out pretty great pictures of the final products on Sen. Al Franken's Flickr page. 


We've published a few other holiday favorites this week:
-Eric Dregni: Gravet Laks
-Betsy Bowen: Feeding the birds on Christmas Eve night
-Sue Leaf: Meringue cookies


Jeff Manuel is author of Taconite Dreams: The Struggle to Sustain Mining on Minnesota's Iron Range, 1915–2000. He is associate professor of history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

"In Taconite Dreams, Jeffrey T. Manuel has done something difficult and truly important. He’s built a historical bridge from the nostalgic, often over-romanticized early days of iron mining to the all-too-real struggles of our present Iron Range region. He takes the controversial issues of economic decline, environmental impact, and cultural struggles and provides a clear-eyed assessment of how things got this way and what it might mean for the future."—Aaron Brown, journalist, author, and host of Great Northern Radio Show

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Reflection, renewal, and the art of canoeing. (With bonus Christmas meringue cookie recipe.)

Sue Leaf in May 2013 at the Minnesota River Valley National
Wildlife Refuge. "On a river, roads seem not to exist and only
the clear and sparkling water serves as a passage through the world,"
writes Leaf. Photograph by Tom Leaf.


When I was a child, I was given the gift of a canoe. The gift was not the watercraft itself—I would wait many years for that—but rather, a sure intuition that such a craft might offer me a new way of seeing, a new way of living in the world. The glimpse of that first canoe awakened a feeling so deep within me that the naturalist Sigurd Olson might have called it a genetic memory, traces of an ancestral past.

It took many years of holding a paddle in my hands, and of actually being on the water, to reconnect with the feeling that first came to me in childhood. Much of that intervening time was spent, as intervening time usually is, in details: learning to pack a food box for a canoe trip; making sure that my children had appropriate clothing for a paddle; figuring out how to keep everyone happy under spare and sometimes challenging circumstances. But when enough time had passed, and when I had grown old enough to be less preoccupied with the mundane, I realized that canoeing had indeed opened up to me an inner eye.

Sometimes drivers on a road trip eschew freeways and choose secondary roads to reach their destinations. They discover that the countryside looks very different traveling a two-lane highway. The freeway seems not to exist and suddenly they see silos and corncribs, the rare dairy herd in pasture. They slow to enter a small town and see grocery stores and post offices with American flags, white frame churches and bars lit with neon signs.

The same disappearing act occurs in canoe travel, only on a different order of magnitude. On a river, roads seem not to exist and only the clear and sparkling water serves as a passage through the world. River banks are invariably rife with greenery—willows, box elder, emergent plants like arrow weed and bulrushes. Even in a heavily cultivated region such as southern Minnesota or the Red River Valley, a narrow river valley serves as a slender oasis for birds and mammals, a refuge from the stranglehold of human beings.

Rivers were the means by which Native Americans, and later, early explorers and French voyageurs, moved cross-country. Lacking horses, but adept at living in the north woods with its many waters, they built canoes and paddled up and down rivers. They carried the exceptionally lightweight boats across the land to get from one river to another. This opened up vast possibilities for travel. Minnesota’s rivers flow into three major bodies of water: rivers in the northwest flow into the Red River of the North, which eventually empties into Hudson’s Bay; rivers entering Lake Superior flow east through the other Great Lakes and end up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the north Atlantic Ocean; and tributary rivers of the Father of Waters, the Mississippi River, flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

A path between rivers can quickly take a traveler from one watershed to another. Certain paths—portages—became historic links and they are commemorated still today in names: Portage, Wisconsin: the link between the Fox River flowing into Lake Michigan, and the Wisconsin River, joining with the Mississippi; Savannah Portage State Park: the link between Lake Superior and the Mississippi; Grand Portage, Minnesota: connecting the chain of lakes on the northern border with Lake Superior. Ancient portages have not gone away. They criss-cross the Boundary Waters and some live on as hiking paths. Riverine thoroughfares have not gone away, either. They just got eclipsed first by corduroy roads, then by gravel roads, and finally by asphalt roads that did not follow a natural course, but a human desire for speed and ease.

But for me, the waterways rise again to stream through my imagination. On a quiet, verdant river, with the trappings of human civilization hidden from view, I think of how effortlessly we get from Point A to Point B. I imagine the various people who have preceded me down this stream. On rivers that were historical trade routes, like Wisconsin’s Brule River (leading via portage from the St. Croix River to Lake Superior) I imagine the Ojibwe families who moved between villages; the explorers, like Henry Schoolcraft, for whom it was the final segment of his journey home from Lake Itasca; the French-Canadian Voyageurs, carrying furs to trading points farther north and east. I think of the various languages that have called out warnings of big rocks, or significant rapids, or rang with greetings as people met going upstream or down.

I think of a world before roads, of how rivers made it far more cosmopolitan than people today could have imagined. The river murmurs to me: I was here first. Let me carry you into the heart of things.



In the early days of the Roseville school system, the first superintendent of schools, Emmet Williams, used to give his administrative staff Christmas gifts. My dad was a curriculum coordinator for the district and one year, Dr. Williams appeared at our house with a cookie jar filled with meringue cookies. We all loved them and my mother especially so, because they are very low in calories. So here is the recipe—Christmas cookies that are okay to eat. I use egg whites from fresh eggs, because the cookies do bake, but dried egg whites would work.

Meringue Cookies

2 egg whites
1/2 c. white sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 c. mini chocolate chips
3 T. unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)

Beat egg whites to stiff peaks using an electric mixer. Use a large bowl because whites will triple in volume. Gradually add sugar, vanilla, and cocoa powder. Mix in chocolate chips by hand.

Drop by teaspoonfuls on to baking sheets lined with aluminum foil. Bake at 250 degrees for one hour. Then turn off oven and let dry in oven for 2 additional hours or overnight.

Makes three dozen.

Hungry for more? We kicked off a holiday recipe spectacular week with Eric Dregni's gravet laks and Betsy Bowen's bird-feeding tradition at midnight on Christmas Eve.

Sue Leaf is the author of Portage: A Family, a Canoe, and the Search for the Good Life and Potato City: Nature, History, and Community in the Age of Sprawl. Her books The Bullhead Queen: A Year on Pioneer Lake and A Love Affair with Birds: The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts, both from Minnesota, were finalists for Minnesota Book Awards. A trained zoologist, she writes frequently on environmental topics. She and her husband Tom have paddled the waters of North America for forty years.