Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Excited, Intrigued about Film Adaptations of August Wilson's Fences and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah

Lately, I've been spellbound by the idea of a couple of film adaptations: Denzel Washington directing himself and, presumably, Viola Davis in Fences, for which they both won Tony Awards; and Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo starring in an adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah.

Fences is a play I've taught now for nearly every year of my career (one year back in the day I taught 10th graders instead of 9th graders, but hopefully I don't make that mistake again anytime soon, haha). Along with, perhaps, Frankenstein in 11th grade British Literature, I think Fences in the 9th grade at our school is about as entrenched as it gets. It was there when I arrived at the school in 2001, and remains today, uninterrupted. This year, our curriculum is Fences, Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck, Poetry of Clifton and Poe, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and Romeo and Juliet. Over the years, the other five units have changed at times (Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, my favorite, has been taught too much in middle schools, ruining it for high schools; The Catcher in the Rye and A Lesson Before Dying were both great teaches but we've gone with Steinbeck in recent years; Persepolis has survived for years now but, who knows, someday may be changed out; this year, we considered I Am Malala; we've done Romeo and Juliet as our Shakespeare for years, and I love it, but I've taken breaks with Othello -- a play I didn't like with 9th graders anymore -- but certainly could see myself doing King Lear, Julius Caesar, or Much Ado About Nothing someday with 9th graders), but Fences survives. And there are good reasons for Fences' survival: it's a great piece of literature, with much complexity, complicated characters and interesting metaphors; plus, kids generally love it, since it's built on high-interest subjects as sports, father-son conflicts, and marital affairs. Personally, I'm crazy about it, since it's about baseball, specifically Negro League Baseball, and uses allusions to Josh Gibson and Roberto Clemente as important symbols of racism and tragedy.

Viola, the too-old Chris Chalk, and Denzel.
In recent years, I have been able to get a lot out of the clips of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis performing Fences on Broadway. The day I went to NYC that summer, tickets were over $500, so I didn't get to see the play, but there are four indispensable clips available on YouTube: the "How come you ain't never liked me?" clip from Scene I.iii, the "fighting death" clip from Scene I.i; the "I don't want him to be like me!" from I.iii; and Rose's "I've been standing with you!" speech in II.i. Someone made an amazing comparison clip of I.iii between James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington performing the "How come you ain't never like me?" scene juxtaposed against each other that I use in my class every year. In fact, I use those clips every year, and they're pretty amazing; our final assessment for Fences is a rationale and a performance, and the clips are important teaching tools. I wish there was more of the James Earl Jones performance released, because the two actors have such a different take on the role.

With all the accolades that Washington and Davis got for their roles, I was hoping that they might make a film, too. August Wilson was famously prickly about his choices for direction and production of his plays into films, which is one reason why there has only ever been one of his ten plays made into movies: an adaptation of The Piano Lesson, directed by the late Black director Lloyd Richards. And, to be fair, my choice of the word "prickly" above might be wrong; I think Wilson's requests were fair, and I agree with him, at least most of the time when I think about it (at other times, I think to myself, does that mean that I shouldn't direct kids in a production of Fences, since I'm not Black? Is that fair to withhold the play from students who would love it and be exposed to his work?).
Viola Davis as Rose and Denzel Washington as Troy.
Anyhow, Washington turns 60 this month, already 7 years older than the character of Troy Maxson; Viola Davis is 49 right now, 6 years older than Rose. Time isn't standing still, so I was worried that these two might wait too long to get a film made of their great Broadway show. That's why the news that Denzel Washington was set to direct and star in Fences was so exciting: having a full film to analyze alongside the text would be a great teaching tool. And, if it's anything like Denzel's "I don't want thim to be like me!" or Viola's "It's my life too!" clips from above, the film itself would likely bowl me over with emotion, make me a sobbing blubbering mess in the theater.

The Denzel Washington Fences film fills a lot of my hopes; Washington, in The Great Debaters and Antwone Fisher, has proven to be a sensitive director who inspires great performances from his actors. Casting those two main roles should be set; these are two of the best living actors, playing complex parts they've already excelled with on Broadway. A mistake of the Broadway production seems to be the age of the actor playing Cory; Chris Chalk's age isn't available online anywhere I could find, but he graduated from college in 2001, so he's in his 30s, and certainly looks older that the 17-year old Cory in the clips made available. I'm sure there are great teen actors who could play Cory, such as the ones Washington found in The Great Debaters.  If the producers need a suggestion, I would point them in the direction of the young man in my 3rd period who starred at Prospero in The Tempest last year, who all his classmates call "Denzel" when we do anything performance-based.

Unfortunately, there's nothing I can find online that updates that story beyond February 2013. Is this a Fences project, like one I heard about a decade attached to Morgan Freeman, that will wither and die on the vine? I sure hope not. Please, Hollywood, get this film made. Denzel and Viola both look good for their ages -- they've clearly lived less harsh lives than the characters they would portray -- but anything could happen; plus, I think this is the role that could win Denzel another Oscar and Viola her first (finally!).

More optimism should abound for the adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, which seems to be in full swing in terms of casting. I'm teaching Americanah this year for the second time, and just love the book; for me, it's the first piece of great literature with a true 21st century voice. With the blogging and Facebook references, Adichie perhaps runs the risk of giving her literature an expiration date, but I don't think it does at all, and, while the bold novel has a few flaws, I think it's genuinely one of the best books I've read in a long time.

Lupita will play Ifemelu.
The casting of Lupita Nyong'o seems great to play Ifemelu; like so many others, I was moved to tears by her performance in 12 Years a Slave, and she's talented and beautiful enough to be able to play Ifemelu through the 12 years or so that most of Americanah encompasses. I'm a bit concerned with her slenderness, though, and hope whoever writes the script doesn't take this important aspect away from Ifemelu's character: her American weightiness. With her modeling contract, would Nyong'o be able to gain the weight that her character requires? It's an interesting notion; while I've definitely heard of male actors gaining weight for a role, other than Sally Field in Lincoln, I can't think of any that have, and, indeed, it's got to be a risky proposition with female body images being so closely examined by media.

David Oyelowo will play Obinze.
Other than that tiny misgiving about N'yongo -- and, really, there is no other actress that I can think of for the role, so it's not a misgiving... it's more of an "I hope they don't write that aspect of Ifemelu's character out of the script" -- I couldn't be more pleased with the casting of David Oyelowo as Obinze. Oyelowo is somehow older than me (he'll be 39 in April), but he played college-age in The Butler in 2013, so he will be able to play a decade span of the same character as well as Lupita Nyong'o; additionally, since he's playing Martin Luther King this month in a movie that is already starting to get great reviews, his casting means the film itself should receive plenty of attention, especially with Lupita Nyong'o choosing it as one of her first post-Oscar roles. I also happen to think Oyelowo is a great actor; he was the best part of The Butler (my review), and I think he and Nyong'o will give life to the layers with which Adichie writes these characters.

I'm so intrigued by who else might be cast in the film. Who will play Curt, the played the rich, callow white guy that Ifemelu dates while living in Baltimore in her early 20s? What about Blaine, the Black American with whom Ifemelu has a serious 5-year (roughly) relationship that begins waning in 2008 but is rekindled by their shared love of Barack Obama? What about Aunty Uju, the young, vivacious aunt who temporarily loses herself in America? How about Justin Bieber, Michael B. Jordan, and Viola Davis?  I'm kidding about the Bieber, but I bet he could do rich and callow justice (though, admittedly, I liked the basically well-meaning Curt a lot more than some of my students did, thinking both he and Ifemelu were young and ignorant, and thought the big scene with him in the inner harbor Barnes & Noble, where Ifemelu shows him all the magazines, was the weakest, most soapboxy scene of the book).

Also intriguing will be what is cut from a 600-page novel. Will it primarily focus on Ifemelu and Obinze, and maybe not spend so much time on the years that they are apart? Will Ifemelu's time in Baltimore be depicted at all, or her family's excitement at visiting the White Marsh J.C. Penny? How about working for the rich white family, or the creepy tennis coach, or all those vivid scenes of Ifemelu adjusting to college and the work force? Will Obinze's time in England be portrayed? And, of course, what about the hair salon?

I'm hoping Adichie writes the script; ever since watching Gillian Flynn's brilliant script for the film of her own novel Gone, Girl, I have been hoping Adichie was working on the script. But who will be the director? This is, of course, huge. Ana Duvernay, Steve McQueen, Amma Assante, and Ryan Coogler are four names I'd be excited about. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's Duvernay, and they're waiting for Selma to be released and a possible Oscar nomination to propel whatever she chooses next to the spotlight.

In either case, I'm so excited about the possibilities of both of these films, and will be first in line to see them.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Tour of the Sites of the Serial Podcast: Woodlawn High School, Best Buy, and Leakin Park

For a few weeks now, my friends and I have been wanting to tour some of the sites mentioned in the Serial Podcast that we (and, it seems like, many around the world) have been obsessing over. We finally had a weekend day free today, and decided to make the 25-minute jaunt from our East Baltimore neighborhood over to Woodlawn High School, Best Buy, and Leakin Park to see some of the sites described in Sarah Koenig's compelling and addicting podcast.

It might be a little voyeuristic, but starting with the Steinbeck Institute a couple summers ago, I've been really interested in visiting and physically witnessing the places I encounter in literature, whether it's James Baldwin's "The Avenue" in HarlemLangston Hughes' house, Steinbeck's East of Eden ranchEdgar Allan Poe sites, or even paying homage at the final resting sites of Divine or John Wilkes Booth and others. I realize that Adnan Syed, Jay Wilds, and Hae Min Lee are real people, but since I consider Serial to be a piece of great literature, I think it's okay to want to respectfully explore some of the sites mentioned. Ultimately, I want Hae Min Lee's killer to be brought to justice, and, while I don't live with any certainty about it, I don't think that has happened yet. Plus, as a Baltimorean for 14 years, listening to the podcast made me a little ashamed that I didn't know Leakin Park (which, I agree with Sarah Koenig, sounds like "Lincoln Park" whenever I hear it pronounced by a Baltimorean) a little better.

By the way, usually my blog gets around 100 hits per entry. My most popular entries are around 1000 hits. This post has almost 10,000 already and it's been up for less than 15 hours. If any of you feel inclined to give to a great cause, I'm a teacher and coach in Baltimore City at a large underfunded urban school and we're trying to raise money for a batting cage. We're almost to our goal, too.

Anyhow, I can't quite believe the podcast is coming to an end this week, and am on the edge of my seat wondering how Sarah Koenig will wrap it up. I don't think Adnan did it, but, more importantly, don't think he got a fair trial or that the investigation was very good, and have been spellbound listening to the story unfold. Before this is over, I want to learn more about Hae Min Lee; I want to learn more about the detectives and judge in the case; I want to hear more discussion of why Adnan, if he did it, didn't create a more compelling alibi (why doesn't anyone remember if he was at track practice, if he wanted to rush back for an alibi?); I want to hear more about Jenn Pusateri and Jay Wilds and their role in the crime; I want to hear more about the $1.71 Hae Min Lee spent at a gas station near my house (Northern Parkway and Harford Rd.), far from Woodlawn, on the day she died. I want to hear more about Don, especially now that the prosecution's timeline has been shown to be so wrong; why is he not a suspect? I want an update on what the Innocence Project has found, especially with any forensic evidence. Those are all plenty of loose threads I want rectified, and that's a tall order for anyone. I'm so intrigued by what (an increasingly spooked?) Koenig might do to wrap this up.

Anyhow, please check out below to see a little virtual tour of these Serial sites and some commentary. We started with the Hae Min Lee Memorial Tree, then headed to Best Buy, then to Leakin Park.

The Hae Min Lee Memorial Tree, planted around February of 1999 in an event organized by Adnan. It's located right in the front turnaround in the school, presumably outside between the gym and the cafeteria and near the main office and main entrance.

Marker in front of Hae Min Lee Memorial Tree.

Front of Woodlawn High School. The memorial tree is the tree on the left of the photo in the back.
Shot from behind Woodlawn High School sign showing the Baltimore County Library, which is so important in Episode 1, as it's where Asia says she spoke to Adnan, giving him the alibi that was never explored by his attorney. Note just how close the library is to the school; it's basically right on campus. 

Amber and Quentin near the Hae Min Lee Memorial Tree from around the location of the Woodlawn High School sign. 
The Best Buy off of Security Blvd. was really close to Woodlawn High School, just a few lights up the road; it took us less than 5 minutes to drive there. Of course, it was on a Sunday morning without any busses. 
Jay's map of Best Buy. The X marks the spot where the photo below is.

This is the parking lot to the right of Best Buy, where the murder allegedly took place. This is around where the X is in Jay's map above.

This is the lobby of Best Buy. In one of Adnan's tapes, he says there were pay phones out here in the lobby; I'm guessing these are the former locations of them (those sealed over outlets). However, Jay's testimony says Adnan called from a pay phone in the outer corner (see map above), on the opposite end of the building from where the murder takes place.

This is the row of trees that Sarah Koeneg mentions in the podcast, adding to the seclusion of this back parking lot.

Entrance to Leakin Park, off of Franklintown Road. This sign is probably about a mile from where Hae's body was found. It took us about 11 minutes to get to Leakin Park from Best Buy; we plugged 4400 Franklintown Rd. into GPS, using this site.
Where my finger is is near where we think Hae's body was buried in Leakin Park. Where the river (Dead Run Creek) runs north of Franklintown Rd (the red line) is where the bullet-ridden sign you see below was.
Friend and colleague Amber Phelps and Katie Moy-Santos check out the No Dumping sign that is mentioned in the podcast. 
Sarah Koenig: "Right at the place where Mr. S had entered the woods, right at the road, Justin noticed a sign." Justin George, from The Baltimore Sun: "You should look at it. I mean, the sign says a lot..." This is how Koenig describes this sign: "You could barely read it. It's hard to read a sign that is covered with graffiti and pierced with seven bullet holes. And in fact, the cops found 20 cartridge casings in right about this spot when they collected evidence in 1999." 

Map we used to find the site. This was drawn by the city cartographer back in 1999.

View from the site towards the road. We were trying to get an idea of why Mr. S wanted to go so far into the woods to relieve himself, stumbling on the body. It was easy to see cars and the road from where we were
Testing to see why Mr. S didn't just pee behind a tree. (I'm not really peeing here, and it turns out we were at the wrong site at this point anyway. See below... there is a lot more than just one bullet-ridden "No Dumping" sign in Leakin Park.)
Sarah Koenig: "Still, I thought the park itself was quite lovely... Brambles and trees...  it's rocky near the stream. It's uneven terrain; it's not hilly, but it's not flat either." 

That's my Ford Escape parked on Franklintown Rd. The cement blockage is in front of a path that I'm not sure was there in 1999. In any case, it was a little hard to park on the narrow 2-lane road without having a pull-off point; this area right here could have been the pull-off area and is right in front of the sign. I'm not sure how a body would be able to be conveniently disposed of otherwise, because cars zip along that street and I was worried about getting hit even being parked along the side. The concrete blockades seemed like a post-1999 addition, as does perhaps the nice paved trails. Anyone know? 

We couldn't figure out where the exact 40-foot log was, or even if it's still there, but this mossy one seemed like a decent candidate. That babbling brook of a stream is just in front a few feet.
Katie looking around the burial site area.
View from the street. The cement blockage is probably where they pulled off.
Could behind this log have been where Hae Min Lee was buried? It's so sad to think about.
Our first misidentification of the site: This was the first bullet-ridden sign we saw, at around 4400 Franklintown Road. We thought this was it and walked around convinced for a while.

Out second misidentification of the site: This is the second bullet-ridden sign we thought might be the marker. The Serial Podcast said it had graffit on it, though, and this looks like a lot more than 7 bullet holes. 

Leakin Park actually looked really nice. I'm looking forward to biking and hiking through there next summer.
(Note: someday, I might add photos of the gas stations at Northern Parkway and Harford Rd., which is actually right by my house and where apparently Hae Min Lee spent $1.71 on the day she died; as well as the infamous Crab Crib, where Dana infamously mentions there is a shrimp sale)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

“The Hot Winds of Change”: Baseball, Racism, and Tragedy in August Wilson’s Fences

I've been working on this essay for a bit, which combines my love of literature, the Negro Leagues, baseball stats, and August Wilson.

“The Hot Winds of Change”: Baseball, Racism, and Tragedy in August Wilson’s Fences

       Baseball has long been known as America’s pastime, and it’s more than just a saying. Unlike other sports with more European and South American roots (soccer, football, basketball, lacrosse, hockey, tennis), the uniquely American sport of baseball is played with players moving in circles around base paths after using a stick to hit a ball. It’s a key fundamental difference between baseball and these other sports, which use a back and forth pattern and attempt to move a ball past an opposing team’s safety area. This basic structural difference is only one reason why baseball is considered so distinctly American. Indeed, Baseball developed in the United States in the 1820s and 1830s, and its history mirrors the history of the young country into which it was born. Even today, baseball continues to reflect our nation’s cultures and population dynamics, as it is our most racially diverse sport, with a racial breakdown that roughly represents that of the U.S. population[1]. While today this is largely positive, much of baseball’s history is fraught with racism, just like that of the United States. White and black players played together in the 1800s on amateur teams, but when the professional baseball leagues were established in 1901, racist Jim Crow laws prevented Black players from competing creating the need for the Negro Leagues, which was a focal point of Black American culture for much of the first half of the 20th century, and provides the backdrop for August Wilson’s classic 1987 play Fences.
       For decades, the Negro Leagues featured fierce competition and tremendous athletes, separated from their white major league counterparts not by talent, but by racism and oppression. The leagues churned out many stars who were household names in Black families around the country, stars like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige (both mentioned in Fences), “Cool Papa” Bell, and Baltimore’s own Leon Day. According to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum website, the Negro Leagues “maintained a high level of professional skill and became centerpieces for economic development in many black communities.” Principally from 1920-1955, professional leagues functioned in the Midwest, Northeast, and southeastern United States and were “a rich cultural and commercial phenomenon for an Afro-American culture in the Americas.”  
Leon Day Park in Baltimore
       This cultural and commercial phenomenon was especially rich here in Baltimore, as the Orioles didn't arrive in Baltimore until 1954, over 50 years after major league baseball began in other cities. In place of a major league team, however, a strong African-American community here sustained two of the most successful all-Black baseball teams – the Baltimore Black Sox and the Baltimore Elite Giants. Today, a prominent city park on the west side is named to honor Negro League Hall of Famer Leon Day, who lived in Baltimore (his wife is alive and still lives in the neighborhood), and people around the city still wear Black Sox jerseys and hats. Every year, the Orioles honor the Baltimore Negro League teams by wearing a Baltimore Black Sox jersey for commemorative games. And, most recently, a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the Hubert Simmons Museum of Negro League Baseball, opened in 2014 and is housed in the Baltimore County Library in Owings Mills. It contains four floors worth of exhibits and artifacts from the Negro Leagues, including a large display about local star Leon Day. 
Baltimore Black Sox
       The beginning of the end of the prominence of the Negro Leagues in Baltimore and all around the country began in 1945, when Negro Leagues player Jackie Robinson was recruited to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers; he broke the color line in major league baseball in 1947. This was an important moment in Civil Rights and baseball history, but it also spelled the end of the Negro Leagues; the best Black baseball players now went to the major leagues, and black fans followed. Troy Maxson, the protagonist of Fences, would have been forty-three years old the year that Jackie Robinson broke the color line, a fact that his wife reminds of. But the bitter, but correct, Maxson replies, “What do you mean too old? Don’t come telling me I was too old. I just wasn’t the right color” (Wilson 39). Of course, Troy is absolutely right here, though the practicality of Rose’s words are still lost on Troy. Troy has every right to be bitter, but the bitterness also prevents him from seeing that times have changed, and this in turn manifests itself into not letting his son play college football, refusing to sign an offer that could have given him the opportunity to earn the first college degree in his family.
       Wilson sets up this conflict over sports and uses baseball’s place as the quintessential, unique American sport to create a central metaphor of a barrier which Troy Maxson tries to overcome throughout his entire life: like baseball, it’s a uniquely American barrier, that of American racism, which is unlike racism anywhere else in the world. The Civil Rights movement of the United States was a slow and painful process for those involved, much like the integration of baseball was. We tend to conflate many of the major Civil Rights events today, but, in 1957, when most of Fences takes place, only a few of the major Civil Rights events of the 1950s had occurred: the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which outlawed “separate but equal” schools in May of 1954; the Rosa Parks arrest and subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott from December 1955 through most of 1956; the “Little Rock 9” event (in which nine Black high school students in Arkansas integrated a public high school under federal protection) at the start of the school year in 1957 probably was happening at around the same time as the events in the play, as evidenced by Cory’s description of late-season heroics by Hank Aaron that year; at one point Cory tells Troy that “(he) hit two home runs today. That makes forty-three” (Wilson 34). That year, Aaron hit 44 home runs, and, while he didn’t hit two home runs in any one game that September, he hit his last three home runs that season on September 22, 23, and 24th, putting the events of the play during the same month as the “Little Rock 9.”
       While these major events were occurring, primarily in the South hundreds of miles from Pittsburgh, where Fences is set, many events of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had not yet happened: Sit-ins at lunch counters were still three years away; MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was still five years away, and his “I Have a Dream” speech wasn’t going to occur for 6 years away. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 were in the distant future, and Malcolm X was not yet a public figure by 1957. As Wilson eloquently describes in his introduction, “By 1957, the hard-won victories of the European immigrants had solidified the industrial might of America. War had been confronted and won with new energies that used loyalty and patriotism as its fuel. The Milwaukee Braves won the World Series, and the hot winds of change that would make the sixties a turbulent, racing, dangerous, and provocative decade had not yet begun to blow full” (Wilson xviii). Despite Troy himself engaging in some civil disobedience in protesting to his union the unequal treatment of Black workers and White workers at his job as a garbage man, he still doesn’t feel, or trust, these “hot winds of change.” This is purposeful; Wilson delves into the repercussions of the American Civil Rights movement in his later play set in the 1960s, Two Trains Running. Fences tells a different story, of the reaction of two generations of Black men to the changing times, before major legislation and social changes had occurred.
       Wilson’s reference above to the Milwaukee Braves winning the World Series in his introduction is also significant, and further illustrates Wilson’s construction of baseball as a central extended metaphor for American desegregation. On that team, Hank Aaron is the 23-year old star and MVP of the league, and he is Black; eventually, he becomes baseball’s all-time home run king, surpassing Babe Ruth in 1972. Troy’s son, Cory, is a fan of Aaron’s, as well as his fellow black teammate on the Braves, Wes Covington. Both serve as symbols of baseball’s continued integration, as do the allusions in the play to Sandy Koufax (one of baseball’s first Jewish superstars) and Roberto Clemente (the Puerto Rican slugger). Troy’s refusal to acknowledge Aaron’s great season – he says, “Hank Aaron ain’t nobody… Hell, I can hit forty-three home runs right now! (Wilson 34) – is similar to his feelings about Jackie Robinson, about whom he says, “I done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn’t even make! What you talking about Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody” (Wilson 10). This disregard for black baseball heroes Aaron and Robinson is important, as is his disregard for his son’s fandom of Aaron: Cory is using his fandom of the major leagues as an attempt to broach conversation with his father, but his father is disinterested in black players who were afforded opportunities that he wasn’t. He doesn’t acknowledge their prowess and the successful integration that was occurring in the major leagues, just like he doesn’t acknowledge that his son could have opportunities through sports that Troy himself didn’t have.
Josh Gibson
       Another interesting way that Wilson uses allusions to baseball players to add layers to his play is through Troy’s feelings of connection to two specifically tragic baseball players, Josh Gibson and the aforementioned Roberto Clemente. At the time of the play, Gibson had died 10 years before; a legendary power hitter in the Negro Leagues, Gibson hit a reported 962 home runs (that’s more than Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, or Hank Aaron) before dying at the age of 35 of a brain tumor -- perhaps exasperated by lack of medical treatment and alcohol -- just months before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball. Gibson’s first mention is in the first scene of the play, when Wilson sets up Troy and Gibson as parallels, with Bono’s line, “Ain’t but two men ever played baseball as good as you. That’s Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson. Them’s the only two men ever hit more home runs than you” (Wilson 10). Gibson (born in 1911) and Troy (born in 1904) would have been contemporaries, and here Bono is describing them as the same type of player: home run hitters. Troy’s mention of Gibson just seconds later continues the connection, but adds the weight of the tragedy of racial inequality:

TROY: … Now you take that fellow… what’s that fellow they had playing right field for the Yankees back then? …
ROSE: Selkirk?
TROY: Selkirk! That’s it! Man batting .269, understand? .269. What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with thirty-seven home runs! Man batting .269 and playing right field for the Yankees! I saw Josh Gibson’s daughter yesterday. She walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet. Now I bet you Selkirk’s daughter ain’t walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet! I bet you that! (Wilson 9)

Here, Wilson portrays Troy as obsessed with the disparity he and Josh Gibson battled in their careers when MLB’s racist practices prevented them from making the kind of money they deserved from playing the sport in which they excelled. Now, former Yankee George Selkirk (1908-1987) probably doesn’t deserve to be remembered forever in a great piece of literature as the symbol of white mediocrity benefitting from racist practices, as it seems like Selkirk was a pretty decent player: a lifetime .290 hitter with a .400 on-base percentage and a .483 slugging percentage in 8 major leagues seasons from 1934-1942. But Selkirk, from his numbers, seems like a player in the vein of Jackie Robinson: high on-base percentage, moderate power, some speed (Robinson had much more than Selkirk); in other words, they were the types of players Maxson doesn’t respect, players who got on base a lot and ran a bit without much power. In other words, they were players unlike him and Josh Gibson. Beyond the home run power, however, it’s of course Gibson’s early death at the age of 35 – tragically just months before the color line was broken in major league baseball – that is the most important connection to Troy here; Gibson is the ultimate symbol of the calamity and heartbreak of racism, and Troy’s witnessing of Gibson’s orphaned daughter struggling with those “raggedy shoes” is another reminder of this oppression and of the effects a father’s barriers and oppression has on his kids, something the rest of the play explores with Troy and his three children.

Roberto Clemente
       In a similar way, Troy’s defense of Roberto Clemente is also noteworthy, as it’s Wilson again connecting baseball, racism, and tragedy. In 1957, Clemente was struggling through a worse-than-mediocre 3rd season in the majors, hitting just .253 with minimal on-base or power skills displayed. However, writing the play in the mid-1980s, Wilson had the benefit to know that Clemente eventually transformed into one of most dominant players of the 1960s and a trailblazing hero of Latino players everywhere (there is currently an effort to retire Clemente’s number in the major leagues, much like Jackie Robinson’s #42 was retired by all teams). Troy defends Clemente in 1957, before any of these accolades: “I ain’t thinking about the Pirates. Go an all-white team. Got that boy… that Puerto Rican boy… Clemente. Don’t even half-play him. That boy could be something if they gave him a chance. Play him one day and sit him on the bench the next” (Wilson 33). Troy’s words that Clemente “could be something if they gave him a chance” are prescient, not only because Clemente became a Hall-of-Fame player, but also that he was known as a highly regarded humanitarian; each year today in the major leagues, the Roberto Clemente Award is given to the player with outstanding baseball skills who is most highly involved in charity and community work. This honors Clemente, who died during an off-season at the age of 38 on Dec. 31, 1972, while flying relief food and materials to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. Clemente’s tragic death – 15 years after the events of the play – and Troy’s connection with him seems purposeful and beyond race. Where Troy isn’t prescient, however, is in the next few lines describing Clemente: “Man on the team and what it get him?” (Wilson 34); this line, on the cusp of Clemente breaking out big as a nationally renowned star, is Wilson’s way of letting us know that Troy does not have his finger on the pulse of baseball, or America, at this point. Wilson is emphasizing that Troy’s bitterness over his own treatment is causing him to ignore the “hot winds of change” that the country is feeling, along with continuing his exploration of the correlation between baseball, death, and racism.
       Indeed, Wilson wants us to make that connection in the first scene of Fences, during which Troy says, “Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner” (Wilson 10). He extends this later after he and Cory’s near-fatal fight, during which he goads his son to hit him in the head with a baseball bat; after Cory leaves, Wilson’s stage directions continue to tie death and baseball together: “Troy assumes a batting posture and begins to taunt Death, the fastball in the outside corner” (Wilson 89). Later, Rose’s description of Troy’s death intertwines the two concepts: “He was out there swinging that bat… He swung that bat and then he just fell over. Seem like he swung it and stood there with this grin on his face…” (Wilson 95-96). Troy connects his life, and death, with baseball, which is inextricably linked to both his great successes as well as to racism for him. These conflicting ideas are explored in the play by Wilson as well, who Wilson asserts the idea that baseball is America’s pastime, but critiques what this means: baseball is only not the game of innocence, green grass, and hot dogs; it’s the game where racist practices destroyed lives and families, just like America itself. And baseball serves as a metaphor for the United States here, and Fences explores the conflicts that arise when social change in America, even positive social change, takes place. Wilson’s explorations and heavy use of allusions linking baseball to racism and death make Fences not just a great play about complex characters, but a classic play about a complex nation and the impacts of decades of racism and social change on generations.

[1] According to a Pew Research Study, in 2012, 64% of the U.S. population and 63% of major league baseball players were white. 17% of the U.S. was Latino, while 27% of baseball players were Latino. 13% of the U.S. population was African American, while 7% of baseball players were. 5% of the U.S. was Asian, while 2% of ballplayers were. Source: Krogstad, Jens Manuel. “67 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Major League Baseball looks very different.” Pew Research Center. 16 April 2014.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Please consider donating so we can get a batting cage

Below is a video my students and I made, requesting donations so we can get a batting cage for our varsity baseball team here in Baltimore City. These are great kids playing for in an underfunded baseball program with a field that takes days to drain after a rain; please consider donating to our GoFundMe site at (I wrote a long description of what it is we need and why we need it there.)

Sharing, facebooking, and tweeting the page would be really helpful, too. Maybe Adam Jones or Cal Ripken will see it?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Visiting the new Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro League Baseball of Baltimore

I've long been fascinated by the Negro Leagues, probably ever since I first heard the story of Josh Gibson, the power-hitting catcher who tragically died at the age of 35 just a few months before Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color line in 1947. This fascination has been furthered by August Wilson's use of Gibson as a symbol for racial disparity in Fences; a decade after the death of Gibson, his protagonist Troy Maxson compares Gibson's daughter's plight with that of a hypothetical daughter of a mediocre white player of the same era: "I saw Josh Gibson's daughter walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet. Now I bet you Selkirk's daughter ain't walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet!". I tell the story of Josh Gibson to my students every year, and own a couple of Josh Gibson t-shirts and even a small statue of him is in my living room. His is such a quintessential American tragedy: he was the best there was, as far as I'm concerned, yet he died young and broke without ever getting a chance for wider recognition, fame, and financial stability because of his race. This is, of course, the entire story of the Negro Leagues, and my annual teaching of Fences has only deepened my respect and admiration for the league.

For years, I've heard there was, or had been, or was going to be, a Negro League Baseball Museum in Baltimore. It makes sense; Baltimore has a rich Negro Leagues history, being the home of two of the most successful all-Black baseball teams – the Baltimore Black Sox and the Baltimore Elite Giants. Today, the Baltimore Orioles honor the Baltimore Negro League teams by wearing a Baltimore Black Sox jersey for commemorative games, and I see Black Sox jerseys and hats around all over Baltimore. Leon Day Park, a baseball park in West Baltimore, is named after a Hall-of-Fame baseball player who played in the Negro leagues and lived in Baltimore until his death in 1995 (his wife still lives in Baltimore and is a huge baseball fan, according to this October 2014 Baltimore Sun article). 

Still, I never was able to find the museum, which I'd been hearing about since the early 2000s but was unable to confirm online. Indeed, this article confirms that the organization has been around for years but hadn't had a permanent home. However, that has all changed; in what seems to be a pretty amazing synergy of resources, the Hubert Simmons Museum of Negro League Baseball (link to what is now a great website) opened in the spring of 2014 and is housed in the Baltimore County Library in Owings Mills. (Hubert Simmons was a Negro League baseball player, the last surviving Baltimore Elite Giant when he died in 2009. It appears his vision for this museum has come to fruition.)

I decided to check it out recently, partly because I was beginning another unit with Fences, and partly because I just love this stuff. I do not venture to northwest Baltimore county very often, but decided to make a trip of it after stumbling on an NPR article. It took me a little bit to find the Owings Mills branch of the Baltimore County library, as it's in what appears to be a brand new complex and doesn't have a prominent sign. However, once I walked in the front door, it was clear I was in the right place.

The museum (and, honestly, it's a little bit hard to call it a museum, as really it's more a bunch of cool exhibits and artifacts with no guide or audiovisuals) is spread across all four floors of the library. I spent about 45 minutes going through the exhibits, but I was really reading the exhibits; I had no idea, for example, that the league featured three female players, including the still-living Mamie "Peanut" Johnson.

I took a bunch of photos and they are below. All in all, it was a good experience, and I learned a lot. I think it's so awesome that the Baltimore County Public Library system is giving the museum a permanent home, one that is accessible, clean, open, and safe. That being said, the museum is probably more for the baseball aficionado rather than, say, a group of 100 ninth graders (which I'd thought about doing, since we're teaching Fences and it'd be a nice connection), but I look forward to continued expansion and perhaps an addition of some audio and video (is there much video of the Negro Leagues in action? Would love to see it.) Definitely worth a visit though! It's completely free (though they accept donations) and there's a lot of great stuff there.

Entrance of BCPL Owings Mills.

1st floor: Baltimore Black Sox jersey
One of these bats, Josh Gibson (and a bunch of others, like Buck O'Neill) signed. I couldn't find Gibson's signature through the glass though.

Baltimore Black Sox open Yankee Stadium to Black Baseball
Women of the Negro Leagues. On the left is Toni Stone. On the right is Mamie "Peanut" Johnson. Here's a cool New York Times article about her.
This is the same Josh Gibson statue I have in my living room.

Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Jackie Robinson. I don't remember who the 2nd statue is! Rube Foster? Turkey Stearns? Hmmmm.
The 4th floor is dedicated to Balimore's own Leon Day. A park is named after him in West Baltimore.
Leon Day died just 8 days after hearing that he had made it into Baseball's Hall of Fame. He's one of the best players ever to come out of Baltimore.
Leon Day.
Black players in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
And, me, this summer, in front of the Josh Gibson statue at Washington Nationals Park.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Interviewed on "Connecting the Dots" blog

I met Cristina Duncan Evans socially a few years ago, only to discover that she was an amazing teacher at another excellent citywide school in Baltimore City, Baltimore School of the Arts.  In the last few months, she has been writing a blog called "Connecting the Dots" for Education Week magazine.

Cristina wanted to start a feature on her blog where she interviews experienced teachers about education policy, and asked me to be involved. We've been conducting an e-mail interview over the last few weeks, and the final product blog post is here.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Powerful student protest of Ferguson decision in Baltimore City Schools

Great things happen in city schools every day. I head into this Thanksgiving weekend with a full heart, thankful and excited about our future and the lessons my younger students learned today and my older students taught me.

It was the beginning of class in the afternoon, and my 9th graders and I were talking informally about Fences, which they'd been reading in my absence over the last three days (I missed Friday for NCTE, and Monday and Tuesday with a nasty respiratory infection that sent me to the hospital). Some kids had finished; others were almost done, and a few needed some clarification on some of the text-dependent questions I had left. Being the day before Thanksgiving, which shouldn't be a full school day anyway, only about two-thirds of the class was there; beyond the weirdness of the day, it was also a strange class period: 20 minutes of class, a 45-minute advisory in the middle, followed by another 25 minutes of class.

We were set to begin advisory at 12:56, but at around 12:45, a group of older students poked their heads into my classroom and addressed my 9th graders: "If you all want to go to the sit-in, come along now." About half of the 20 students left, and 10 remained, looking at me. They were worried. "Are we going to get in trouble?."

I wanted them to go, but I didn't want to tell them to go. This should be student-directed, not teacher-directed. I said, "Well, if you want to engage in any sort of protest, you should accept the consequences, whatever they might be." They still looked at me confused, so I added: "I'm not planning on giving you any punitive consequences." They talked it over a little bit, one boy sweetly worried he might not be able to play football the next year if he was caught attending a peaceful protest with the vast majority of his schoolmates. Then, he decided to go. It was important enough. By this point, the halls were crowded with students marching in unison, shouting, "Hands up! Don't shoot!", many with signs.

With all my students attending the protest, I decided to go see what it was all about. The auditorium was full of hundreds of students, most of them dressed all in black in solidarity with their response to the verdict. After a couple of neutral words from the principal, the remaining hour and a half sit-in was completely student led. The Senior Class President began with a speech about the non-indictment, featuring a continued repetition of the line, "I think I smell something" referring to the purported facts of the case, which finally, towards the end of his speech, cascaded into the answer: "injustice". Another student described the testimony of Officer Wilson, describing how the entire investigation was "goosed": no fingerprints taken off the gun, no cross-examination of the officer. Yet another came up to the mic, admitted that she "didn't know what (she) was doing" before delving into a powerful catalogue of things she is tired of, ending with the line, "If we stand for nothing, we will fall for anything." Fifty or so students spoke, each ending their speech with the "Hands up, Don't shoot" mantra that has been a part of every protest. Eventually, the discussion moved to the institutional racism that persists within the structures in which they struggle every day; students presented a thoughtful list of demands of administration and the school system.

There were a couple of exceptions (which only added to the authenticity of the event), but, for the most part, it was an incredible and inspiring day. There were times when my eyes teared up watching these young, passionate people share their thoughts and engage in non-violent protest. It was completely student-led, which made it even more powerful, and more proud of where I work and our students. With the holiday of graciousness upon us the next day, it was hard not to feel how thankful I was to work in this school, to work with these students. I needed this, this week.

For this week has been a hard one. After the ridiculous and inhumane Trayvon Martin / Zimmerman decision in Florida, I was not expecting Officer Wilson to be indicted. And that's sad, to just expect injustice to persist, because one of the things I'm most passionate about is fighting cynicism. But even I couldn't not be cynical about what the prosecuting attorney was going to say that night. Now, I'm not sure what happened on that day in Ferguson, and as the son and cousin to great police officers and someone who grew up in the cop culture, I have some predispositions that many of my fellow liberal friends don't have. I will defend police all the time; it is a demanding, life-threatening, and often thankless job of service. But Officer Wilson was not a good police officer. He let a situation escalate to the point where he felt the need to fire 8 bullets at a kid. The lollipop questions asked of him in the indictment hearing were designed to bring one result: to not give this guy a day in court or allow Mike Brown's family the opportunity to face the man who killed their child. Instead, they heard their child go on trial, as Wilson's testimony painted him as an overpowering "demon" who had a bizarre, suicide-by-cop personality. And everyone believed him. Everything was stacked against an indictment, from the slow investigation, the lack of ballistics, to the fact that the District Attorney's father was a police officer killed in the line of duty. This is why the case became that rarest of rarities: a case that goes before a grand jury and isn't brought to trial; indeed, only 1 in 11,000 cases before a grand jury don't end up going to trial. Even Justice Scalia (in his 1992 Supreme Court case United States vs. Williams) agrees: "It is the grand jury’s function not ‘to enquire … upon what foundation [the charge may be] denied,’ or otherwise to try the suspect’s defenses, but only to examine ‘upon what foundation [the charge] is made’ by the prosecutor. Respublica v. Shaffer, 1 Dall. 236 (O. T. Phila. 1788); see also F. Wharton, Criminal Pleading and Practice § 360, pp. 248-249 (8th ed. 1880). As a consequence,neither in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented."

The trial may have resulted in an acquittal, but this case has too many questions not to go to trial, a public trial where witnesses are vetted and questioned by more than just those already predisposed to be believed by prosecutors. 

So, yes, out of this sadness and anger, our students gave me a lot of hope today, and I pray these students feel empowered and engaged for years to come after their powerful and compassionate sit-in today. It's what my heart needed to end this week and move into the Thanksgiving holiday.