Found in the archives: A 1997 chat with Ed Bullins

Ed Bullins – Photo credit James Cagney, Dirtyratattack.com

In 1997, I had an opportunity to interview Ed Bullins, a prominent playwright of the Black Arts era. He was on the TCNJ campus for a production of his award-winning 1974 play, “The Taking of Miss Janie,” which Bullins has described as an allegory about race relations in the US. In a review of a 2008 revival of the the play, the New York Times said the message appears to be that, “The failure of the ideals of the ’60s, it seems, is just about everybody’s fault.”

The campus production was directed by fellow award-winning playwright Don Evans, who taught creative writing at TCNJ and Princeton University for three decades before his death in 2003. This interview was videotaped at the TCNJ campus studio. Perhaps this summer, I’ll digitize the video and post a clip of Bullins’ riveting reading at the end of this interview. In the meantime, here is a video clip from the play.

A Conversation with Ed Bullins

2/17/97

 

KP: Good afternoon, I’m Kim Pearson, Assistant Professor of Journalism at The College of New Jersey. We’re pleased to be having a few minutes to chat with Professor Ed Bullins from Northeastern University. He is best known as a major force in American theater over the last 30 years and a seminal force in black theater. His work includes such plays as “The Duplex” and “The Taking of Miss Janie,” which was performed here this weekend at The College of New Jersey. Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, Professor Bullins.

EB: You’re welcome.

KP: Well, “The Taking of Miss Janie” is a play about life in America during the 1960’s. Tell us a bit about Monty and Janie and the force behind the characters.

EB: Well, Monty and Janie, the two antagonistic characters in – particularly Miss Janie – antagonistic, yes, but a loving, friendly relationship up to a point – is actually a metaphor for race relations, group antagonism, conditions that happen between people and groups during the 60’s civil rights integrationists/black power era.

KP: What is it that you were saying about that period of time and those relationships?

EB: Well, each of the characters, Janie in her own way and Monty in his own way, were not realistic. Janie felt that she could use Monty as a surrogate symbol of friendship which only goes so far, a symbol of – for her liberalness.

KP: Okay —

EB: Monty, on the other hand, he wanted to complete the relationship sexually, and never made any bones about that he wanted into the system. And Janie withheld that from him until he took the opportunity some decade or so into their relationship where he took advantage of her by force, physically. Each of them have their own friends, each of them have their own acquaintances in the play, and they are two camps that clash frequently – ideologically, relationship-wise, and even at the end, physically. And so consequently the false pretenses of the liberal whites and the, I would say, false desires and expectations of integrationist minded – misinformed – or liberals, you know, those two characters personify those two extremes in society.

KP: In “Miss Janie” it isn’t only Monty, the integrationist character, who is disappointed but also Rick, the black nationalist character.

EB: Well, Rick is like the consciousness of some – some sense in the play. But, actually, if you scratch Rick, under Rick is Monty.

KP: Okay.

EB: You know, Monty you could say grew up to be O. J. Simpson – could have been O. J. Simpson, and Janie could have been O. J. Simpson’s wife, if Monty’s dreams had been fulfilled. But they weren’t. They weren’t, but Rick is in his embryonic stage of becoming a radical black nationalist who speaks out for his race and against the abuses that society has done to blacks. And so he has a strong voice, but he is not perfect either. No one is perfect in this story.

KP: In the program notes about the play the 60’s are described as a time of self-delusion and a time in which Americans lost their sense of identity. Is that your take on the 60’s?

EB: I didn’t write the program notes. I feel America, in a great sense, found a lot of their identity during the 60’s. From 1955 to 1965 was the Civil Rights movement. Of course, it’s a pivotal point, a watershed period which went on to make American what it has been for the last 30 years. Since that time America has been feeling better about itself increasingly. We haven’t had the type of huge social upheavals. It’s been a time of mending, a time of trying to get it together. And, of course, we’re not completely there, but there’s no threat on the horizon of huge, cataclysmic war – doesn’t seem to be. There doesn’t – I mean, long time prosperity – relatively long time prosperity first – you know, one of the few periods in the last hundred years. So, there’s a lot of good things, a lot of good things. Of course, there’s a lot of bad things too, but not to the degree where it looks like society might be torn apart and destroyed through, you know, clashing of whites and blacks and the withholding of human rights from a large mass of people.

KP: Many Americans are worried about race relations in light of such things as the O. J. Simpson trial, the Rodney King rebellion and other kinds of events – the rise of the militia movement, for example. You seem surprisingly optimistic.

EB: Sure, I mean, I think society has changed to a degree. Of course, we have those things that you mentioned, but I think they’re sort of a spice to keep the news media and other things fed, keep people concerned with these things. I mean, over the years they’re important, I guess, but they’re less important. You don’t have wholesale lynchings in the street or armed camps of people, you know, assaulting one another, killing one another. So, consequently, I think more importance publicly and media-wise is placed on those things than they deserve.

KP: Okay.

EB: I think the alarmists of our society play on those things. They put it on the 6 o’clock news and say, “Oh, yes, blacks might be crawling across the fence to get my daughter,” or “The white man is going to do this or do that.” No such thing. You know, I think it will be – it’s just the opposite of that.

KP: Twenty-five years ago you wrote about the role of black theater and talked about its mission being one of raising consciousness, altering consciousness for its audience. Could you talk a little bit about that, and talk about the role of black theater today?

EB: Alright. We who began in black theater in the mid 60’s into the 70’s, we felt like we were lending our energies, voices, artistic minds and everything else to the struggle for physical liberation called the Civil Right movement, then the Black Power movement, and so consequently we felt like it was very important to do – and to do that, to achieve that, we had to raise the consciousness of the, for lack of a better word, the black masses or whatever. Alright. Through television their consciousness has, if not raised, at least been put to sleep in a way with the Fox Network and the new minstrel shows and all that. So, consequently, it is questionable what is meant by now raising the consciousness of the people. So, you – So, the mission changes, the mission changes. It becomes doing art, doing culture as an adjunct to education and to understanding, to cultural identity, to cultural understanding about self worth. And so it changes our field. So, the work that we did, if we haven’t completed it, at least it’s been usurped by the mass media or put to sleep by educational TV or, you know, it left.

KP: What are you referring to when you talk about the “new minstrel shows”? And why do you call them that?

EB: The Wayans [Brothers], the stereotypes, the caricatures. You know, the same caricatures of the coons, the Sambos, the Jezebels, the mammies and all that. They’re just played outrageously to the mass audience. The minstrel show was a mass media a hundred years ago – a hundred and fifty years ago. Now, shows of that type are like the mass media minstrel show.

KP: Is there a role, then, for an art that would challenge or would get black audiences or black artists to understand the danger of that kind of stereotype?

EB: No, it’s entertainment. As long as it’s entertainment certain people seeking entertainment are going to look at it, so – this is a democracy. I mean, in a democracy – it’s dangerous having a democracy in that you can’t legislate all the time or control the choices that people will make.

KP: Do you feel that these kinds of shows are damaging?

EB: Damaging? I think so. I think they’re damaging. You have kids aspiring to be a Sambo, you know, to be this kind of figure that’s working on stereotypes and makes people laugh. You know, what kind of future is that for a black or any other kid?

KP: So what kind of arts – what kind of portrayal should there be?

EB: Should? I’m not dogmatic, so I wouldn’t say “should”. If I say “should”, it’d be all kinds of portrayals, all kinds of portrayals. You know –

KP: What would you rather see?

EB: What would I rather see? I would rather see truthful, realistic, believable, human, uplifting, responsible, challenging stuff.

KP: Are there works out there that fit that mission?

EB: Yes, of course, of course, but they’re sort of, many times, submerged or covered over by the, you know, the general low level of regular media stuff.

KP: What kind of works have you seen that you feel provide that kind of complexity and intelligence and truthfulness?

EB: I didn’t bring my list along. Let’s see if I can pull some out of my memory. There have been some. Let me think of – I can’t recall offhand, but there are some.

KP: Okay. In a recent –

EB: Oh, no, no, no-no –

KP: Please.

EB: No, it would just muddy the water.

KP: Alright. In recent weeks there has been a considerable amount of controversy over a speech and some subsequent articles written by August Wilson, the Pulitzer- Prize-winning playwright whose plays, “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” –

EB: Okay, so, plays like that.

KP: Right, okay.

EB: I mean, but not exclusively like that. So, something that Danny Glover was in not so long ago, took place in South Africa – he and Alfre Woodard, and I can’t even pronounce the name of it. I forget the name of it, but it was really moving to me. On a South African family, he was a policeman, and he, at the beginning of this sort of rebellion. He stood up with his family against the racist, brutal South African regime, and his own people killed him because he was identified with the police forces. This was very moving to me, and I think it was a very, very – that was very on, you know, on, you know. Some other things, but I don’t have that list in the forefront of my mind.

KP: Okay

EB: You see them every once in a while.

KP: I was mentioning August Wilson because, as you know, last year he gave a speech and published some subsequent articles in which he criticized the American theater establishment and called for funding for separate black theater. He was taken on by Robert Brustein, who is a well-known critic, and there was a discussion or debate that took place a couple of weeks ago in New York that’s received a lot of coverage in which they exchanged views. I was wondering, Brustein accused Wilson of being a separatist; Wilson talked about both the necessity of funding for black theater and seemed to be critical of the policy of colorblind casting; and I was wondering how you felt about – if you could talk a little about that controversy and tell me –

EB: Okay. It’s a historical problem…, I guess, on both sides. But Brustein, he headed the theater at Yale, alright, and he was fired and replaced by Lloyd –

KP: Lloyd Richards?

EB: Yeah, Lloyd Richards. Lloyd Richards took August Wilson under his wing and introduced him to the public through doing his plays. And so consequently that was followed by a series of very vicious attacks in the so-called critical pages of the New Republic by Brustein. Brustein was extremely resentful about what happened to him at Yale. Brustein hated Lloyd Richards for replacing him, and he was going to take out his spite and his venom on August Wilson, who became – who eclipsed him and became a major playwright through the efforts of Lloyd Richards. So, in Boston August Wilson was down at the Huntington, which is in Boston. Across the river, Brustein heads up the American Repertory Theater, rivals in the same place. Nothing good came out of – from the pen of Brustein in regard to August Wilson – just the opposite.

KP: Okay.

EB: Just the opposite. So, August, in defense, came out against the prejudicial practices the Brustein has been practicing for years. I remember 20 years ago we had a – he and I had a running battle in –

KP: You and Brustein?

EB: Yeah, in, you know – a minor running battle, writing letters, et cetera, et cetera, over my plays. John Simon also, who’s an ally of Brustein, and I have had some of these same battles 20 years ago. John Simon supports Brustein in saying how knowledgeable he is of what he says about black theater. When Brustein at that town hall conference confused Robert Hooks with one of the principals in the new Lafayette theater – and actually Robert Hooks was a rival through the Negro Ensemble Company of the new Lafayette theater. And some other missions of intelligence that Brustein made on that evening, and John Simon said, “Yes, Brustein, he’s knowledgeable, and he knows what he’s talking about,” but the man doesn’t know what he’s talking about, especially concerning black theater. So, there’s a history going on. Alright.

What do I believe in regard to August Wilson? Number one, I recently published an open letter to the New Yorker because I was mentioned in an article published by – written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It might seem that I was on the side of or being critical of August, but I’m not critical. August is a friend of mine. I believe in his work, and I believe in how he feels about black theater, black art, et cetera, et cetera. He’s – didn’t come out of nowhere. He was in community theater, black theater. He was doing my plays and other black playwrights year ago, you know. You can go to reactionaries like Shelby –

KP: Shelby Steele.

EB: Shelby Steele, who made his career out of writing about black theater before he turned right – and seen documented proof of some of that work. And, in any case, on the one hand, I side with – fully – with August Wilson as in regards to his defense against the prejudicial attacks by Brustein. As far as colorblind casting, it’s used like affirmative action. It’s used as a hoax and as a device for whites to get money – whites to get money. White theater – the Sharon Otts of the world –

KP: Who?

EB: Sharon Otts, she used to work – she used to run the Berkeley Rep, now she’s up in Seattle. Then her model was played out across America. These regional theaters are saying, “Well, we want audience development,” and so …. They’ll have a couple of programs with some blacks or ship in Asians or some other population. Whether you use a tenth of the money and then they go on and keep the money and nothing is done. The black theater – and there is a number of theaters, you know, in each of the areas of the country – they’re starved because the minority money has gone to the white theaters. And the white theater have gone and grabbed all the actors that the black theater has developed for the last 30 years and given them one job and gone on about their business. And the money’s sucked up like affirmative action contractors. And where’s black theater? But, you know, still trying to live on the undernourished vine.

But, artistically and critically, outside of the economics and how the government and the Sharpies (?) practice the game before the money showed up, I’ve enjoyed some multicultural productions. The “Coriolanus” production at the New York Shakespeare Festival Joseph Papp’s theater did. I thought it was a wonderful production. “The Cherry Orchard” with Gloria Foster and Raul Julia and a black cast and a Hispanic cast, you know, I liked that. “Long Day’s Journey into Night” with Earle Hyman or – was it Earle Hyman? – and Gloria Foster and then – I enjoyed that, so I use it in my teaching and other things. I sometimes use colorblind casting, so it’s a device that can be used in an experimental sense or a sense to make a statement, but not completely disregard the ethnic believability and racial-specific truth of life.

And then, you know, don’t say that, you know, “Take this money and do great things in the black community,” when, if you’re white, you’re going to take the money and keep it, you know, and maybe even bring in another kind of black company, an African company, or some other kind. I mean, I think the African companies should be done, outside of Athol Fugard, also, but to do it at the expense of African-Americans all the time and then leave them high and dry without money, that’s another matter. I do not agree.

KP: Is the problem just that there isn’t enough support for theater anymore, and that makes it increasingly difficult to make sure that the money that’s there gets distributed fairly?

EB: Fairly? I mean, they’re gangsters. I mean, there’s nothing fair in gangsterism. I mean, they pack these boards and these panels. They divide up the money and say they’re doing something great for the arts. That’s not fair.

KP: Well, now, as opposed to 30 years ago, there’s an increasing number of wealthy African-Americans. Is there enough support for the arts coming from them and from other wealthy Americans of color?

EB: Well, the wealthy Americans of color, you know, they buy into the middle class and bourgeois system, and they feel that when they need some art, they’ll buy some art. And if it’s not properly art, they’re not worth it. So, I don’t expect too much help from them. I mean, because many times the artists and theaters is at odds on the values of these so-called people who make money — you know, black people who make money and say you should be given money. I mean, why should they give money to be criticized? I hope – I hope the black – well, the black theaters exist. Go down to North Carolina, Winston-Salem, from August 4th to 8th this coming year, and you’ll see 30, 40 more black theater companies from all over the world – I mean, all over the country – coming there, doing things. They survive, you know, I mean, I guess they exist like churches. They haven’t been able to stamp out black churches just because you burn them. I mean, they’re still coming at you. So, black theater would do more of that, and hopefully they’ll do more – they’ll learn to do more things in a marketing/business/fund-raising way to keep existing.

But, look, 30 years ago you didn’t have a NEA, a National Endowment for the Arts. That’s because in the art subsidies – the government arts subsidies – was killed off at the end of the Depression in 1938. The WPA, the Works Projects Administration is because the Helmses of then – right? – saw it was a threat. It put ideas in the black heads such as integration, such as voting, such as, “You’re as good as any other man or woman on the face of the planet.” You know, whether you be black, white, or whatever. And some of these same forces are in the NEA. The Republicans, wholesale, want to extinguish the arts. I mean, to them, their art is fine – the opera, the symphony, the ballet, the Metropolitan and one or two other institutional entities – and they don’t need the rest.

KP: Just to provide a little bit of historical background, can you talk about some of the contributions that black theater has made over the last 30 years to American theater and to popular culture? Some of the people that have come out of theater companies such as the Negro Ensemble Company?

EB: Well, I’d have to go back further than 30 years. Why don’t we go back to – well, we could go back further than that, but why don’t we go back – the only original and popular form of theater in America is the minstrels, and that was created caricaturing or stereotyping the black image, saying that blacks are not human enough to be full citizens or free. They’re following a chain of being that’s God up in heaven, the animals below. Blacks are below the whites and are like semi-human. And this was played out on stages by whites blacking their faces and acting like monkeys.

That was around the 1840’s when that arrived in America. I mean, it developed from the 1820’s. And that existed for the most part of the 19th century, and then blacks rebelled and took over the minstrels. They eclipsed the white players. And you say, “Why would they want to do that? Why would they want to play parts that was like negative images?” Because that’s the way, after they got out of slavery in 1865, they could feed their families and send their kids to school and earn enough for some property beside working 14/16 hour days all their life. So – but then they rebelled in the 1890’s. They started – they took off the black face. They began doing a type of show called the coon show. I know the negative images, but a coon show – mixed in with that was some uplift things too. They developed a chorus line of women that became the Rockettes later on. They, you know – the American musical form was taken from the British libretto and little else, some folk singing, and they transformed that into a form of theater called the musical theater, which is very much with us today. They revitalized the structure of theater by creating the blackout, where the lights would come on and then would go out, delineating the scenes.

And this show went into the 20’s, and it would help fuel the Harlem Renaissance – the musical period and the work of the Johnson brothers and Flournoy Miller and many of them with the politics of Marcus Garvey, black nationalism, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So, that got sidetracked a bit in the 1930’s with the Depression, but then the government subsidized the arts through the Works Projects Administration, the WPA, and there was a black unit that did great work with Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Theodore Ward and many others. But, some racist southern white senators stopped the program, just like they’re trying to stop the NEA now. So, this isn’t Europe. In Europe they have uniform cultures, you know, with a much lower percentage of minorities. And so consequently a country like Germany or some other country like that will have national theaters all over the country. That’s not – I don’t think if it’s possible, at least in this century, to have that in American because the blacks will be getting it, they’ll say, or the whites will be getting it, or somebody else will be getting it. It won’t be uniform, and consequently some senator or some government entity will come in and shut it down.

KP: In the time that we have left, could you tell me what your hopes are for – not only for American theater – but for the way that your work is going to be understood in the future, in American theater?

EB: Well, I don’t know if my work will be understood completely, not in this time, not that I’m saying that I’m so way out there or this total prophet or anything like that. But, some of my work is kind of harsh and upsetting, and people don’t want to be upset. I mean, they don’t want to understand it. They don’t wish to understand it.

KP: Why?

EB: Because you don’t want to see what’s obvious and is truthful but is painful. Let me read something from a play of mine, if I may.

KP: Certainly.

EB: Do we have time?

KP: Um-hm.

EB: Alright, this is a play called “Salaam, Huey Newton, Salaam”. Much of the text was taken from the journals of a fellow playwright, Marvin X, but I took it and made a play out of it. And Marvin tells a story in this monologue. “Salaam, Huey Newton, Salaam”, the play is taken from a book “New/Lost Plays” by Ed Bullins. And it goes like this:

“In 1984, I became addicted to crack cocaine. Many people, especially members of my family, found my addiction difficult to understand. ‘You’re too strong,’ they would say. ‘How could you become a weak, pitiful dope fiend?’ But I did.

“My addiction came in my 40th year, for many people a time of disillusionment with life, and certainly it was for me. I was burned out, tired of revolution, tired of family life, sex, and women, tired of working in the educational system, tired of the black middle class, the grass roots, tired of religious sectarianism, Christian and Muslim alike, tired! Maybe this is what happens when one lives too fast. You not only get burned out, but you run out of ideas. What mountain should I conquer next?

“And a voice came to me and said, ‘You shall become Sisyphus! You shall roll a rock up a mountain, and it shall fall to earth, and you shall begin again each day for eternity since you won’t figure out anything else to do, you big dummy!’ So, I was a sitting duck for an addiction.

“That is, a new addiction, especially when I became an entrepreneur and had large sums of cash on a daily basis. Yeah, I sold incense and perfume oils and lots of stuff on the corner at Market and Powell in San Francisco. I made a lot of quick, easy money. The money added to my problem because I hated making money. I actually felt guilty about it and had to do something with all that money I had.

“So, my friends, including my so-called Muslim brothers, introduced me to crack. I didn’t like sniffing cocaine. For one reason, my mind is naturally speedy, so I did not want anything to speed it up more. I wanted to slow down, relax.

“My thing was weed. I admit I abused weed because I smoked it from morning to night for over 20 years. My things was weed, wine, and women. I always said I wanted to die from an overdose of weed, wine, and women.

“But along came crack, and soon I had no desire for wine, weed, or women. With all my knowledge, I had forgotten the simple rules of life: For every blues, there is a happy song. Sing a happy song, it takes just the same energy as the blues.

“Even before my addiction to crack, why couldn’t I think of all the good in my life? Why couldn’t I sing a song of praise to Allah, my god, for the beautiful parents he had blessed me with, for my beautiful brothers and sisters, for the beautiful, intelligent woman I had had, for the most beautiful children any man could imagine? Why? Why? Why?

“Yes, I know now. Because I thought I was self-sufficient. I had sat and watched my friends smoking crack, but at first it didn’t interest me. I did not like they way they behaved. I’d come into the room, and they wouldn’t even look up and acknowledge my presence. They were all staring at whoever had the pipe.

“But finally, the devil caught me, only because I forgot Allah.

(in a keening voice)

“I lost —

my wife

behind the pipe.

I lost —

my children

behind the pipe.

I lost–

my money

behind the pipe.

I lost–

my house

behind the pipe.

I lost–

my mind

behind the pipe.

I lost–

my life

behind the pipe.

“Yes, crack sent me to the mental hospital four times. Many times I put crack in my pipe and took a big, 747 hit. I could feel death coming, feel my body surrounded by the strangest sensation. I would run to the window for air. I’d run outside for air. But after the moment of death had passed, I’d return to my room and continue smoking.

“Once, I accidentally cut my wrist, cut an artery. I dropped one of my pipes and grabbed at the broken pieces, cutting me critically, but I was unaware. I thought the bleeding would stop, but I didn’t. I found my backup pipe and fired up. My friend tried to get me to a hospital, but I thought the blood would stop. Dripping from my wrists, it didn’t. My new pipe became covered in blood. My dope had turned the color of blood. My clothes, the rug, the bed, the curtains were all covered with blood, but I didn’t stop. I kept on smoking. Finally, my friend got the hotel manager, and he came in with a baseball bat and forced me out the room. The paramedics came and took me to the hospital. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA. After the emergency room crew stitched my wounds, I got the bus and returned to my room to finish smoking. Hell, I still had 60 bucks! Fuck it!”

I don’t think a lot of people are ready for that right now, maybe never will be in the next hundred years.

KP: But is seems to me that you think there is an important role for the artist in telling those kinds of difficult truths.

EB: Sure. That’s what we are sent here for. That’s what you get. You know, that’s why you get fed to the lions. You know – (laughs)

KP: So, as long as there is an Ed Bullins to tell these truths, then there’ll be an audience somewhere to listen?

EB: Somewhere.

KP: So, the point is to try to keep persistent?

EB: To do your work, yes.

KP: Okay, well, is it difficult, then – do you see a new generation of black artists or other artists coming along?

EB: Yes, there’s always a new generation, so far.

KP: Is there anyone whose work you’re watching in particular?

EB: In particular – I’m watching many people, hopefully.

KP: Well, I’m sure that as those artists are developing they will continue to look to you as a model, as a teacher, and as an inspiration. Thank you very much for joining us this afternoon and for sharing some of your work with us.

EB: Thank you.

copyright 2001. Kim Pearson and The College of New Jersey. All Rights
Reserved.

On the Grid: Teaching and Research in the Digital Age

Archived U-Stream live feed:


Video streaming by Ustream

Video streaming by Ustream

Fellow Panelists: Alison Clarke, Simone Browne, Howard Ramsby. Moderator: Thomas DeFrantz.

I love, Thomas’ poetic articulations of issues, the more I listen to them. I think I will spend much time watching videos of his performances. I so appreciate Alison Clark’s practical wisdom. I will be sitting at her feet, you can be sure. Howard Ramsby’s description of childen’s excitement at receiving physical letters and his linking of social media profiles to the tradition of persona poems. Simone’s linking of contemporary biometric technologies to historical traditions of slave branding was one of many insights that has my wheels turning.

How to bring it all together, how to mine this and all of the wisdom in the service of my various roles – developing an inclusive pedagogy for journalism/IMM, functioning as an African American Studies Department Chair, participating in the public sphere? Much to continue to contemplate here. So grateful to my fellow panelists, all the panelists, Mark Anthony Neal, all of the folks and the John Hope Franklin Center.

 

On teaching game design in a journalism class, Part 4: Newsgames as literary journalism

In the  last blog entry on my newsgames class, I reported on my students’ remix of my intentionally buggy, incomplete Food Stamps game. That exercise served multiple purposes:

  • It provided an accessible example of the challenges of conceiving a newsgame, and for defining requirements for such a game as journalism and as a game.
  • Splitting the students into groups focused on specific aspects of the game (story, media, gameplay) afforded an opportunity to reinforce and extend ideas in their texts through collaboration and peer teaching.
  • It provided a natural segue into guiding students into the development of their own games.

One of the first challenges of getting students thinking about the requirements for their own game projects is that I found no literature on how one actually reports and organizes information for a newsgame, not to mention the ethical standards that ought to apply.  Game designers are accustomed to thinking conceptually not literally, so they take liberties that potentially violate the canon of journalism ethics. This has led to some interesting discussions with colleagues. For example, in 2008, my computer science colleagues and I were planning the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers, one of my colleagues had one of our research assistants build a Scratch game that offered a crude representation of the issue of global warming. In the game, clicking on the aerosol raises the earth temperature until the planet explodes:
Scratch Project

I expressed concern about the scientific inaccuracy of the game, and we had an extended discussion about how literal the game needed to be. Interestingly, the project generated nearly 700 views and dozens of comments and remixes, including a debate about global warming. In addition, both this researcher and another student colleague built a number of interesting prototypes, including this game about campus cafeteria food options:
Scratch Project

With this experience and my magazine writing background in mind, I opted to teach the students to think of the reporting and storytelling aspects of the game as a kind of linear, multi-threaded literary journalism. Literary journalism combines the factual reporting of journalism with much of the artistic freedom of literature.

Reporting

We reviewed the reporting process of collecting data from secondary sources and primary sources, interviewing, and organizing information in cluster diagrams. I had them give me abstracts and annotated source lists, as I would in a magazine writing class. Because we lost the first two weeks of classes due to Hurricane Irene, this process was somewhat truncated, but we did spend some time on interviewing and vetting sources. We also spent a lot of time on copyright, ethics, libel and defamation rules. We also talked about the fact that narrative newsgames are often built on a degree of fictionalization and the creation of composite characters – practices that would be considered unethical in literary journalism.

We talked about ways of mapping story structure to game mechanics. And we talked a lot about new journalism with its emphasis on scene-by-scene construction, changing points of view, dialogue and experimentation in narrative structure. We  did close readings of Gay Talese, Susan Orlean and Jimmy Breslin.

We talked about strategies for fulfilling or confounding audience expectations in order to create suspense and engagement. I used clips from the 80s TV show, Moonlighting, which does this brilliantly:

 

Parodying Dr. Seuss:

Taking an irreverent approach to a classic, also breaking the fourth wall:

As we brainstormed about their game ideas, Moonlighting also helped me introduce them to genres that might be suitable for the storytelling for their games, but with which they were unfamiliar. For example, I suggested that the conventions of film noir might be worth exploring for one group’s game about the workings of Ponzi schemes.

With the students’ permission, I soon hope to share some examples of the ways in which they applied these ideas to their games.

What is a computational journalist?

A friend posed this question on Facebook in response to my last blog post, and I was tempted to respond, “We’re still figuring it out.” Then I was tempted to be glib and say, “It’s CAR (computer assisted reporting) on the Information Superhighway.” There’s a sense in which both of these statements are true, and yet, there are some things that can be said with some degree of confidence.

Computational journalism is the application of computing tools and processes to the traditional task of defining, gathering and presenting news. This definition is what I was reaching for in my May 2009 essay, “How Computational Thinking is Changing Journalism and What’s Next.” As Adrian Holovaty explained in this September, 2006, blog post, computers aggregate and manipulate structured data, so we make the best use of the technology when we organize our content accordingly. This not only means cataloging our content in ways that make it easier to find (SEO metadata, tags, links and trackbacks for example), but choosing the most efficient and effective forms of information-gathering and presentation for the task and audience at hand.

One example that I used in my essay involved building a module into a local newspaper’s content management system that would pick up specific pieces of metadata from a wire service’s RSS feed (such the time stamp and the dateline) and automatically dump the headline into a breaking news field that loads on the front page.

This kind of automation is one way in which computing technologies can help make the newsgathering process more efficient and timely.  Megan Taylor’s July 2010 post for Poynter reported on how companies such as the New York Times are building applications that automate the retrieval and manipulation of certain kinds of information, such as congressional votes.  Taylor also noted that news operations routinely employ algorithms, or step-by-step procedures that can be codified, or sometimes translated into software applications that can aid reporting and editing.  The third important quality is abstraction, which is a way of generalizing about objects or processes. For example, this web page is governed by an cascading style sheet that is built on a set of abstractions such as “text,” “header,” “link,” “post” and “footer.” Each of these “objects” has properties, such as font, color and alignment  that define its “style.” The webpage interacts with a database organized according to its own set of abstractions.

Why is this useful for the non-programmer journalist to understand?  For one thing, I’ve found it helps me understand what programmers are talking about when we are collaborating. For example, when I worked with my computer science colleague Monisha Pulimood and our students to create the content management systems for our campus online magazine Unbound and our Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers, our programmers had to ask detailed questions about the journalists’ workflow in order to create the databases and interfaces for each system. It took a while to understand what was most useful and relevant on both sides, when we worked on unbound, but the process was much smoother during the IJIMS project because we were more practiced at the conversation.

Computational includes, but is not limited to computer assisted reporting.

Sarah Cohen, Duke University’s Knight Foundation Chair in Computational Journalism’s 2009 report “Accountability through Algorithm: Developing the Field of Computational Jounrlaism (.pdf), , envisions new tools that will help reporters gather, analyze and present data and interact with news consumers and sources in more efficient, useful and engaging ways.

One simple example is  Gumshoe, the database manager that Pulimood  and her students built to help another TCNJ journalism colleague, Donna Shaw, analyze data she’d obtained about the disposition of gun crimes in the Philadelphia municipal courts. Using a sample of data from just a two-month period in 2006, Shaw and her students were able to document the fact that hundreds of cases weren’t going to trial, often because evidence and/or witnesses disappeared.  Shaw’s findings were part of the document trail that led to “Justics: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied” a Philadelphia Inquirer multi-part series  on problems in the Philadelphia court system that ran in 2009. (One of the reporters on that project, Emilie Lounsberry, has since joined our TCNJ journalism faculty.) (Reference)

Social network analysis is another great computational tool. I really like this 2006 project created by students from Emerson College a few years ago that illuminated how social networks affected the transmission of health information in Boaston’s Chinatown. The network maps are accompanied by a series of video podcasts about health care issues in the neighborhood.

News games are another important area of development, and I think that collaboration between journalists and game developers are going to lead to the emergence of multithreaded interarctive non-fiction narratives. Another TCNJ colleague, Ursula Wolz, has been helping me think about the possibilities of this field for the last several years. In 2007, we published a paper and a Poynter. org post outlining our idea for a multi-threaded non-fiction storytelling engine. We’ve made progress since then, which I hope to be able to demonstrate in more detail in the coming months. For the moment, here is a very primitive example of a fictional mutithreaded story that I wrote in Scratch using a simple storytelling engine that Wolz wrote for my interactive storytelling class last Spring. (This was actually part of a larger collaboration supported by the CPATH distributed expertise project, which Wolz and I will be presenting, along with our Villanova colleagues, Tom Way and Lillian Cassel, at the SIGSCE conference next March.)


Endnotes

  1. Shaw, Donna., Pulimood, Sarah Monisha. and Lounsberry, Emilie.The Gumshoe Project: A Model for Collaboration Between a Small College and a Large NewspaperPaper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, The Denver Sheraton, Denver, CO, Aug 04, 2010 . 2010-11-15
  2. (with U. Wolz) “ Multi-threaded Interactive Storytelling for Literary Journalism “, The New Media Consortium Summer Conference 2007, Sparking Innovative Learning and Creativity”, invited expanded paper, http://www.nmc.org/publications, pp 38 – 45, 2007

“What we investigate is linked to who we are”

The Re-education of Me Table of Contents

  1. What we investigate is linked to who we are
  2. The Me nobody knew then
  3. Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy
  4. Discovering Masterman, discovering myself
  5. The electronic music lab at Masterman School
  6. The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the quest for computing diversity

Phliadelphia: 1963-67

Literary scholars of the Freudian sort sometimes speak of the fantasmatic, a kind of archetypal drama etched into a writer’s subconscious, rooted in childhood experience, that finds expression in the structural elements of that writer’s work. In her groundbreaking 1998 tome, Psychoanalysis and Black Novels, Claudia Tate (pictured below, left) used to concept to explain WEB DuBois’ penchant for eroticizing the quest for freedom in his creative writing. I recall a conversation with Tate not long after the book was published in which we speculated that writers would probably do well not to dig too deeply into the oedipal roots of their creations.

Nevertheless, this work would be incomplete without some exploration of the ways in which personal experience and social location helped shape my way of doing journalism and thinking about journalism education. Research related to the effort to enlarge and diversify the computing pipeline discloses that young people’s career choices are heavily influenced by parents, teachers and guidance counselors. (References) In plumbing my childhood experiences, I see evidence how I began to think of myself as a writer, and the values I began to internalize that would shape the kind of writer I ultimately became.

Investigative journalist Florence George Graves alluded to the impact of the personal on the professional in her May 2003 Columbia Journalism Review essay, “The Connection: What We Investigate Is Linked to Who We Are.”(.pdf) Graves speculates that her penchant for uncovering secrets was probably affected by the coded rituals of segregated life in the Waco Texas of her childhood,

“I couldn’t stop wondering about certain aspects of life in Texas. Why were there separate drinking fountains for “whites” and “coloreds” in public places? Why did my close friend’s parents treat her decision to marry a Catholic as if there had been a death in the family? Why weren’t Jews allowed to join the country club? Why should girls bother to excel in school if they were not entitled to use their knowledge in the world beyond the home?”

I was born in 1957 – the year of revolution in Ghana, federally-enforced integration in Little Rock, and the first human foray into outer space – accomplished by a Soviet regime considered the West’s chief global adversary. It was, in other words, a time when old orders were under siege, new power equations were being drawn and no one seemed sure whether the future held hope or annihilation. My childhood was lived in the space between the restrictive past and future possibility. On one occasion, my parents and I stood in one long line at an armory to receive a vaccine-laced sugar cube that promised protection against polio. On another, we stood in another long line to see the desk and other effects that had belonged to Pres. John F. Kennedy, who had been murdered in a Dallas street while I sat in my first-grade class and made a paper turkey to decorate our Thanksgiving table.

Unlike Graves, the adults around me openly discussed the reasons behind the inequalities that she observed in silence. The questions revolved around how those inequalities might be eliminated – or at the very least, how their destructive impact might be minimized. Racial justice and the quest for enlightened governance had been matters of vital concern in Philadelphia since the 18th century, when the Quakers debated the morality of slavery, and black freemen Richard Allen and Absalom Jones protested segregation within the Philadelphia Methodist conference by founding the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

From a sociologist’s perspective, I suppose my family’s prospects seemed fairly fixed in 1957.  My paternal grandparents had been part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow south to the de facto segregated north. Their parents had been slaves. The men in my family mostly worked with their hands, mostly in construction. My father had done that kind of work as well, although by the time I started school, he had landed at the Post Office, and there he saw other black men who were going to college. With the help of his veteran’s benefits, he enrolled first in trade school, and then Temple University, fitting his classes around his swing shifts at work.

We weren’t the kind of people whose lives and concerns took up much space in the daily newspaper. The scholar VP Franklin (pictured, left) notes WEB Du Bois’ pointed critique of American journalism as he experienced it in the 19th and 20th centuries:

“The American press in the past almost entirely ignored Negroes. Very little of what Negroes wanted to know about themselves, their group action, and their relationship to public occurrences to their interests was treated by the press. Then came the time when the American press so far as the Negro was concerned was interested in the Negro as minstrel, a joke, a subject of caricature. He became, in time, an awful example of democracy gone wrong, of crimes and various monstrous acts.” (Franklin)

Philadelphia, where I spent most of my childhood, was no exception to this general rule. In her 2008 doctoral dissertation, communications historian Nicole Maurantonio supplied the scholarly support for the sense of invisibility and alienation that I and so many others experienced as we searched for some reflection of our reality in the Philadelphia newspapers. Maurantonio argues that in the years between the end of World War II and the fatal 1985 attack on the headquarters of the radical group MOVE:

“[N]ews organizations were not merely impartial storytellers providing a language with which to narrate crises. Journalists inscribed a rhetoric of racial marginalization that shaped discourses surrounding race and ‘radicalism’ within the city.”

It was of course, the black press who tried to cater to the needs of African Americans in those years. From the time of its founding in the early 19th century, the black press had, as scholar Matthew Holden puts it, “facilitated the umbrella issues of freedom, racial uplift and the emancipation of the slaves.” My family, and most my peers regularly read the Philadelphia Tribune (which billed itself as  “The Constructive Newspaper” in those days) and Ebony magazine alongside the Philadelphia Bulletin. Many of us listened to black radio stations, where DJs such as Georgie Woods (“The Guy With the Goods”) would become indispensable allies of the Civil Rights Movement.

Maurantonio recounts how the Tribune tried to counter this dominant “rhetoric of marginalization”  by calling for police restraint during such moments of crisis as the Columbia Avenue riot of 1964 – a series of violent clashes set off by false rumors that the police had killed a pregnant black woman.  Maurantonio discusses the ways in which the Tribune and the other local newspapers framed their coverage  in the following video segment (from 9:12 to 15:03):


My teachers created what I now recognize as a hidden curriculum designed to reinforce our belief in our own humanity in the face of segregationist school district policies and a a culture that, as Du Bois had explained decades before, constructed us as a problem. Between school, the neighborhood library where I discovered Carter G. Woodson’s magical Encyclopedia of Negro history, the devotion to learning that my parents modeled, I came to understand education as a pre-requisite for personal and racial advancement.

When my parents and teachers noted my curiosity about certain aspects of science and writing, they shepherded me into Saturday morning writing workshops and science classes. My stepmother folded lined paper into little booklets that I filled with short stories.

When I was 8, I appeared as a panelist on a children’s version of the popular College Bowl television quiz show. The show ran on WHYY, our local public television station, and was hosted by Philadelphia’s answer to Mr. Wizard, Bess Boggs. (At least that’s her name as i remember it; having failed to find a record of the show during my research, I’ve posted a Facebook query to fact-check my memory.)  My parents dressed me in my Easter outfit for that year (a powder-blue tailleur with a faux-fur collar, don’t you know) and put my hair in a bob instead of the usual school-day pigtails. They cleared their work schedules to accompany me to the studio (no small feat, especially since my father worked swing shifts full time and went to school full time).

It will tell you something of who I was in those days to know that when Bess Boggs entered the studio, I jumped up and down and started tugging on my parents as if the Beatles and the entire Motown Revue had just strolled by. (Or maybe more – two years later, on a summer camp field trip, I was quite calm when we ran into Marvin Gaye in the Philadelphia International airport. It did please me mightily, of course, when he held my hand and planted a kiss on my cheek.) In any event, my admiration for Bess Boggs was in keeping with the fact that one of my other hobbies in those days was keeping journals on the Gemini space flights.

I don’t remember the show much, other than the fact that I was Kearny’s only representative. Kearny was not known for its academic prowess. The neighborhood it served included the Sunday Breakfast Mission, then at 6th and Vine. The tow-headed brother and sister in my class,  the only white children in the school, if memory serves, were the missionaries’ children. They had transferred in from somewhere, and I don’t think they stayed long.

Kearny was old school. We lined up on the concrete playground by class in the morning and stood at attention in the stairwells once we were marched inside. Two or our more imposing teachers, Mrs. Jenkins and Mrs. McCoy, patrolled our ranks to ensure that we kept our mouths closed and our hands to ourselves while we awaited the class bell. Any transgression would require that you step out of line to have them smack you with a ruler. The school day began with a salute to the flag, the pledge of allegiance, and a moment of silent meditation. (We were told that the silent meditation was a substitute for the prayer that had been required until the Supreme Court banned the practice.)

My teachers exhorted us to be a credit to our race. A local historian, Ed Robinson, spoke at one of our assemblies about the glories of our African past. They were also steeped in art and culture – the crossing guard taught piano, and one of the teachers sang opera. One of the few white teachers taught us about Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter. They got us some instruments to start a small string ensemble, and had us learn two pieces for my one and only instrumental recital: an aria from Verdi’s “Aida” and “Go Down Moses.”

In Mrs. Moore’s class in second and third grade, I sat next to a handsome, sharply-dressed, husky-voiced and mischievous boy named William Cook. His brother, Wesley, who was three years older, was a fixture at the Friends’ Neighborhood Guild, whose library was one of my favorite haunts. My clearest memory of Wesley, whose neighborhood nickname was “Scout,” was of him sitting at a table at the Guild, telling another older boy, “Listen Up! Eli Whitney didn’t invent the cotton gin!” If I was 8 or 9, then, he was 11 or 12.

Two years after that, in November, 1967, after Wesley went to Stoddard-Fleischer Junior High School, we heard about the police cutting loose on a throng of high school and junior high school students who had gone down to school district administration building to petition for black history classes in the curriculum. We heard that Frank Rizzo, the inspector to whom mild-mannered George Fencl’s civil disobedience reported, had reportedly unleashed his men on the peaceful crowd with the command to, “Get their black asses!”   (The year before, Time magazine had cited Fencl’s unit as an innovative way of managing protests with minimal conflict.) In later life, after he changed his name to Mumia Abu Jamal, embarked on a career as a journalist and activist, and ultimately landed on death row.

By the way, the city’s new superintendent of schools, Mark Shedd, earned the enmity of Fencl’s supervisor, Frank Rizzo, when he criticized the aggressiveness of police response to the demonstration, leading to Shedd’s ouster when Rizzo became mayor in 1971. In a subsequent section of this work, I will treat Shedd’s legacy in more detail, but for now, I merely want to note the controversy over the police action.

All of that would be later. Suffice it to say that by 1967, I had internalized my parents’ and teachers’ messages about the power of the pen, the fun and necessity of learning, and the certainty that Lord have mercy, we were moving on up!


Endnotes

  1. 1. Franklin, VP. “W.E.B. Du Bois as Journalist,” Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 56, No. 2 (1987). P. 240-244
  2. Philadelphia Tribune page one flag, Sept. 1, 1964
  3. For example, see: Cohoon, J. M. and W. Aspray, (eds.) Women and Information Technology: Research on Underrepresentation, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006; Barker, L. J., E. Snow, K. Garvin-Doxas, T. Weston, Recruiting Middle School Girls into IT: Data on Girls’ Perceptions and Experiences from a Mixed-Demographic Group, in Women and Information Technology: Research on Under-representation, Cohoon & Aspray, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006. pp113-136;
  4. References on the black press during this periodFor an on overview of the black press generally, see the PBS website for Stanley Nelson’s documentary: The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. Pamela Newkirk’s Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media (NYU Press, 2000) offers a comprehensive and concise overview of the process of integrating white newsrooms and its impact on the black press.