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.