Category Archives: Featured

“Physogs:” Hard to Say and to Play

Post contributed by Taylor de Klerk, Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Intern

Rubenstein Library researchers take their work seriously, and we do, too. But sometimes their research includes playing games, and when that’s the case we’re more than happy to oblige!

Photograph of the Physogs game box with the lid off. In the center is a stack of cards with a head with a blank space for the face. On the left are four sets of cards, one of eyes, one of noses, one of mouths, and one of descriptions of facial features. Instruction booklets are on the right.
Original storage for game

We recently played Physogs: The Novel Card Game,” a board game from the 1940s about physiognomy, the practice of determining an individual’s character based on their facial features. The game is based on sociologist Jacques Penry’s Character from the Face, which guides readers through using distinctive facial features as a means of identifying personality traits. Represented here as a fun game, the popularization of physiognomic practice added fuel to an already steady 20th century fire of stereotyping based on physical appearance.

To play the game, players each hold four cards and take turns drawing cards from a central pile then discarding cards into another pile in an effort to try to make their face, nose, and mouth cards match with a descriptive text card. The first player who thinks their face is accurate shouts “physogs!” just like in Bingo.

Photo of someone's hand holding four cards. One with a nose on it and two with a mouth, and a fourth with a description of a "crafty - self-centered" face.
Cards in game play
Photograph of a white woman seated at a table. In front of her is a complete Physogs card. She is looking at it.
History of Medicine curator Rachel Ingold tallies her score

After someone says “physogs,” each player compares the cards they hold to the key book, which determines points awarded. We played a few rounds and quickly learned that we’re very good at earning negative points. With subjective descriptions of nose types like “Well proportioned. Very finely textured skin,” and “Long, narrow ridge. Crude or bony appearance,” and “Broad, crude and bulbous,” it’s challenging to try to match the words to the pictures. And that’s just one facial feature!

It was also immediately apparent that all facial features represented the same skin tone: white. Additionally, many descriptors are written in a heavily gendered and sexist tone, all of which we found unsurprising for a game from the 1940s. For example, a “pleasant and cheerful” woman should be paired with “full, smiling lips, showing the teeth. Dimple at corner of mouth.” Meanwhile an “excitable and impetuous” man should be paired with lips that are “very wide and large. Lips are full yet flat in appearance, with a downward curve in centre.” These personalities are not absolutely equivalent, but give a good sense of the gendered descriptions of relatively similar characteristics.

Photograph of the various cards and instruction manuals for Physogs set up for game play..
Physogs game setup
Photograph of the game's key book and a completed card
Comparison of a constructed face with the game’s key book

Our Physogs game experience made for an interesting Friday afternoon with the added benefit of helping a scholar conduct her research and understand the game in practice. Physiognomy’s historical use for judging people based on their looks prompted lively conversations about the 1940s-era facial descriptions and their incorporation in a game. Though physiognomy may sound like fun and games, this “science” was often appropriated for stereotyping by race or gender. Some used this practice to make conclusions about mental intelligence and criminal behavior based on one’s physical appearance, and it’s important to bear those historical uses in mind when interacting with these materials.

If you’d like to learn more about Physogs: The Novel Card Game or Jacques Penry’s Character from the Face, we encourage visitors to visit the Rubenstein Library online or in person. For more of the Library’s holdings about physiognomy, click here.

Teaching with Archives: Duke Summer Doctoral Academy

Date: May 20-24, 2019
Time: 1:30-4:30pm
Location: Rubenstein Library, Room 150
Registration Required. Registration closes May 5, 2019.

Faculty from across the humanistic and interpretive social science disciplines will demonstrate how they have incorporated archival materials into undergraduate teaching, providing students with the chance to hone research and critical thinking skills through close engagement with rich primary sources.  Seminar participants will discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by these new pedagogical approaches, including best practices in using new technologies to present archivally-based research.

Participating faculty include:

Trudi Abel (Rubenstein Library)
Edward Balleisen  (Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies)
Kristen Neuschel (History)
Thomas Robisheaux (History)
Victoria Szabo (Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Information Science & Studies)
Elvira Vilches (Romance Studies)
Clare Woods (Classical Studies)

This course  is offered to Duke doctoral students and Duke post-doctoral fellows at no charge. There is a $500 fee for Non-Duke students and Non-Duke post-doctoral fellows. More details are available on the Duke Doctoral Academy website.

Offering Access to Social Media Archives

Post contributed by [Matthew] Farrell, Digital Records Archivist.

I last wrote about harvesting Twitter for the archives way back in April 2016. Toward the end of that post I expressed our ambivalence toward access, essentially being caught between what Twitter allows us to do, what is technologically possible, and (most importantly) our ethical obligations to the creators of the content. Projects like Documenting the Now were just starting their work to develop community ethical and technological best practices in social media harvesting. For these reasons, we halted work on the collecting we had done for the University Archives, monitoring the technological and community landscape for further development.

February 2019 saw the 50th Anniversary of the Allen Building Takeover, when a number of Duke students occupied the Allen Building to bring attention to the needs of African-American students and workers on campus (here is a much better primer on the takeover). There were a number of events on campus to commemorate the takeover on campus, both in the Rubenstein Library and elsewhere. As is de rigueur for academic events these days, organizers decided on an official hashtag, which users could use to tweet comments and reactions. Like we did in 2016, we harvested the tweets associated with the hashtag. Unlike 2016, community practice has evolved enough to point to a path forward to contextualizing and providing access to the harvested tweets. We also took the time to update the collection we harvested in 2016 in order to have the Twitter data consistent.

In terms of technology, we use twarc a tool and Python library created by DocNow, to harvest and process Twitter content. Twarc interacts with the Twitter API and produces output files in JSON format. The image here is an example of JSON, which is clearly not human readable, but is perfect for machine processing as a data set.

JSON output from twarc. Yikes, y’all.

But twarc also allows the user to work with the JSON in different ways. Some of these are obviously useful–e.g., you can create a basic HTML version of the data set.

Much better.

Those funky characters are because twarc has a hard time encoding emoji. These web comics (here and here) are not full explanations, but point to some of the issues present. If you take nothing else from this, observe that you can somewhat effectively obscure the archival record if you communicate solely in emoji.

Finally, for our ability to offer access in a way that both satisfies Twitter’s Terms of Service and Developer Agreement, twarc allows us deyhdrate a data set and respect the wishes of the creator of a given tweet. “Dehydration” refers to creating a copy of the data set that removes all of the content except for Twitter’s unique identifier for a tweet. This results in a list of Tweet IDs that an end user may rehydrate into a complete data set later. Importantly, any attempt to rehydrate the data set (using twarc or another tool), queries Twitter and only returns results of tweets that are still public. If a user tweeted something and subsequently deleted it, or made their account private, that tweet would be removed from rehydrated data set even if the tweet was originally collected.

Dehydrated Twitter data. These can be rehydrated into complete Twitter data using twarc or other tools.

What does this all mean for our collections in the University Archives? First, we can make a dehydrated set of Twitter data available online. Second, we can make a hydrated set of Twitter data available in our reading room, with the caveat that we will filter out deleted or private content from the set before a patron accesses it. Offering access in this way is something of a compromise: we are unable to gain proactive consent from every Twitter user whose tweets may end up in our collections nor is it possible to fully anonymize a data set. Instead we remove material that was subsequently deleted or made private, thereby only offering access to what is currently publicly available. That ability, coupled with our narrow scope (we’re harvesting content on selected topics related to the Duke community in observance of Twitter’s API guidelines), allows us to collect materials relevant to Duke while observing community best practices.

Announcing our 2019-2020 Travel Grant Recipients

The Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library is pleased to announce the recipients of the 2019-2020 travel grants! Our research centers annually award travel grants to students, scholars, and independent researchers through a competitive application process. Congratulations to this year’s recipients:

Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture (Mary Lily Research Grants):

Emily Fleisher, Artist: Artistic project will include a series of drawings based on historic needlework that create a narrative about the lives of American women before 1920

Charlie Jeffries, Faculty, University of East Anglia: Your Best American Girl: Construction of Adolescent Sexualities in the US Culture Wars

Laura Kenner, Doctoral Candidate, Harvard University, History of Art and Architecture Department: Text, Sex, and Video: New York City’s Downtown/Underground Scene (1973-1996)

Nell Lake, Doctoral Candidate, Brown University, American Studies Department: Research for dissertation that will link 20th century moral discourse around care and domestic labor with 20th century politics of women’s work

Jessica Lapp, Doctoral Candidate, University of Toronto, Faculty of Information: The Provenance of Protest: An Exploration of Feminist Activist Archiving

Kaja Marczewska, Research Fellow, Coventry University, Centre for Postdigital Cultures: Distribute-it-Yourself: Judy Hogan and the History of North American Small Press in Circulation (1960s-1990s)

Jennifer Withrow, Doctoral Candidate, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Economics Department: Three Essays on Labor and Marriage Markets: Farm Crisis and Rural-to-Urban Migration in the United States, 1920-1940

 

John Hope Franklin Center for African and African American History and Culture:

Selena Doss – Faculty, Western Kentucky University, Involuntary Pilgrimage: Black Southerners and Territorial Separatism, 1783-1904

John Harris – Faculty, Erskine College, Pirates of New York: The United States and the Final Era of the Illegal Slave Trade, 1850-1867

Jacqueline Fewkes – Faculty, Florida Atlantic University, American Mosques: An Ethnohistory of Space, Memory, and Muslim-American Community

Crystal Sanders – Faculty, Penn State, America’s Forgotten Migration: Black Graduate Education in the Age of Jim Crow

Kali Tambree – Doctoral Candidate UCLA, Enslaved African peoples who jump off of the slave ship as it is en route to the Americas

Charles Weisenberger – Doctoral Candidate, University of Massachusetts-Amherst “The Telfair Family and the Antebellum One Percent: Slavery in the Early United States, 1735-1875”

John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History:

Sarah Arnold, Faculty, Maynooth University, Department of Media: Television, Technology and Gender: New Platforms and New Audiences

Mark Bartholomew, Faculty, University of Buffalo, School of Law: “Advertising Outrage and its Legal Regulation”

Rachel Kirby, Doctoral Candidate, Boston University, American and New England Studies: Study of visual representation of Southern agricultural products

Shayan Lallani, Doctoral Candidate, University of Ottowa, Department of History: Cultural Globalization in the Caribbean: Dining and the American Middle-Class Turn in Cruise Ship Tourism, 1920-2016

Adam Mack, Faculty, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Liberal Arts Department: Limitless: Supermarkets and the Dilemma of Choice

Brent Malin, Faculty, Pittsburgh University, Department of Communications: Ordinary and Necessary: A History of the American Tax Deduction for Advertising

James McElroy, Doctoral Candidate, University of Minnesota, Department of History: Racial Segregation and Market Segregation: The Late-Twentieth Century History of the American City Supermarket, 1960-1990

Emily Morgan, Faculty, Iowa State University, Department of Visual Culture: Imagining Animal Industry: Visualizing the American Meatpacking Trade, 1890-1980

Robert Terrell, Faculty, Syracuse University, Department of History: The People’s Drink: The Politics and Culture of German Beer in the Twentieth Century

Emily Westkaemper, Faculty, James Madison University, Department of History: Career Women: Image and Reality in U.S. Popular Culture, 1940-2000

 

History of Medicine Collections:

Matthew Barrett, Doctoral Candidate, Queen’s University, History Department: Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and a Doctor: Medical Attitudes toward Homosexuality and the Court-Martial of Dr. Percy E. Ryberg

Kelly O’Donnell, Faculty, Thomas Jefferson University, College of Humanities and Sciences: Study of the role doctors’ wives played in the medical profession, recasting the history of American health care by focusing on the women behind the “great men” of medicine

Laura Smith, Doctoral Candidate, University of Arkansas, History Department: Southern Doctors from Southern Communities: Medical Education and Professionalization in the Nineteenth-Century South

 

Human Rights Archive (Marshall T. Meyer Research Travel Grants):

Meghan Gibbons, Independent Researcher: Nationalism and Maternal Protest in the US, El Salvador, and Argentina

Gabrielle Girard, Doctoral Candidate, Princeton University, History Department: Modeling Democracy: The Global History of an Argentine Human Rights Experiment, 1978-1991

Michael Jones, Doctoral Candidate, Tulane University, Department of Political Science: Blood & Peace in the Hills of Africa: Post-conflict Institutions in Comparison

Zachary Norman, Faculty, University of Utah, Department of Art & Art History: “Researching Images of Incarceration: Developing Visual Art & Studies Courses to be Taught Inside”

Mira Rai Waits, Faculty, Appalachian State University, Department of Art: Colonial Carcerality: The Birth of the Modern Prison in India

 

Harry H. Harkins T’73 Travel Grants for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History:

Jonathan Coleman, Independent Researcher: Anywhere, Together: A Queer History of Kentucky

Benjamin Serby, Doctoral Candidate, Columbia University, History Department: Gay Liberation and the Politics of the Self in Postwar America

 

Photographic Research Grants, Co-Sponsored by the Archive of Documentary Arts and the History of Medicine Collections:

Rachel Fein-Smolinski, Faculty, Syracuse University, Department of Transmedia: “Sex Lives of Animals Without Backbones: A Study of the Aesthetics of Pain and Courage Within the Western Healthcare System”

 

We look forward to working with you all!

Developing a Code of Ethics for Rubenstein Library Instruction Sessions

So far this academic year, Rubenstein librarians have taught 132 class sessions (though we won’t finalize these numbers until the end of the spring semester). You’d think that’d be enough to fill our time, but we’ve also been meeting monthly to discuss our individual teaching practices and how to improve our students’ experiences in our class sessions. We want to inspire confident special collections researchers for life!

Through our discussions, we realized that we often returned to couple of key points about archives and primary source research in our class sessions. We’d broach those points on an ad hoc basis as they arose in classes, but we wondered if starting our class sessions off with a shared understanding of those points would be useful, reassuring, and perhaps even empowering for our students.

We’ve followed the development of codes of ethics for different spaces and organizations within (and beyond) our profession and thought that model might also work for us. Early this semester, we drafted and began implementing what we’re calling our approach to classes at the Rubenstein Library. (“Code of ethics” seemed so heady that it might have the unfortunate effect of tamping down student engagement.) Here is what we developed:

Explore and be curious! Our class sessions are interactive, hands-on opportunities to look at lots of materials, so take advantage of this time. Challenge yourself to look (even briefly) at items that don’t initially catch your interest—you might be surprised at what you discover.

Our class sessions seek to be inclusive, offering multiple perspectives, viewpoints, or lived experiences, but may not include the voices of every population for a number of reasons. Let’s talk in class about the voices that aren’t being presented.

The background, experience, and knowledge you bring to this class session are valuable. There isn’t one right interpretation of a historical document. Please listen carefully and treat everyone’s responses respectfully.

The material you encounter in this session has the potential to be uncomfortable or upsetting. Be kind to yourself and recognize your limits. You can look at something else or even step out of the room to take a break.

When working with historical documents, you may encounter racist, oppressive, or outdated language in the documents themselves or in the archival record. When we discuss these items, we will want to use terms that reflect the ways these communities describe themselves today.

Later this month, we’ll come together as a group of instructors to talk about how we’ve been able to incorporate the code into our class sessions—but informal reports suggest it’s been useful! Our practice has generally been to give students two to three minutes to individually read over the code (presented on a slide) and then talk as a class about any questions they might have and how the individual points in the code might come up in the class session.

Color photograph of librarian teaching the code of ethics to a class session. The code appears projected on a screen behind her. Students sit at a conference table in front of the screen.
A Rubenstein librarian teaches our new instruction code of ethics in a recent class session.

We see this as a living document that we’ll continue to refine and add to as needed. So please do let us know what you think and feel free to borrow or adapt our instruction code of ethics for your own class sessions!

Event: Radio Haiti Culminating Event with Haitian Journalist and Human Rights Activist Michèle Montas

What: Radio Haiti Project Culminating Event: A Conversation with Michéle Montas

When: 5:30 PM, Thursday, April 11

Where: Ahmadieh Family Lecture Hall, Bay 4 (C105) Smith Warehouse, 114 S Buchanan BLVD, Durham, NC 27701

Haitian journalist and human rights activist Michéle Montas discusses the legacy of Radio Haïti-Inter, Radio Haiti’s archive at Duke’s Rubenstein Library, and the past, present, and future of justice and impunity in Haiti. With additional remarks by Laurent Dubois, Radio Haiti project archivist Laura Wagner, and AV archivist Craig Breaden. Light refreshments. Free and open to the public.Poster for Radio Haiti Event

Benetton & Fashioning Controversy

Post contributed by Kasia Stempniak, Graduate Intern, Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History, and Romance Studies PhD student. 

Fashion advertising has never shied away from provocative imagery. One of the first clothing brands to consistently court controversy through advertising was the Italian sportswear brand Benetton. A family owned company established in 1965, Benetton became one of the most successful sportswear brands in Europe in the 1980s. That same decade, Benetton decided to enter the United States market and hired J. Walter Thompson (JWT) as their advertising agency to better reach US consumers. JWT would remain with the Italian brand from 1983 to 1992 and the Benetton advertisements in the JWT archives at the Hartman Center offer a unique look into the evolution of advertising conventions in the fashion industry.

Benetton magazine advertisement featuring about a dozen people of different races and ages. They are all wearing Benetton clothing and hugging one another.

With the Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani as the creator of its advertisements, Benetton launched a series of ads in 1983 that were designed to be explicit celebrations of diversity and inclusivity. These ads, like the one seen above that was featured in the magazine Mademoiselle in 1983, were part of a campaign called “All the Colors of the World.” With their messages of global harmony, these ads would take on dozens of different iterations in the next two decades. They became such a staple in Benetton’s marketing repertoire that in the 1990s, the expression “a Benetton ad” was sometimes used to refer to an image with a diverse group of people. Some of these ads tackled politics, like this advertisement diffused during the Cold War in 1986 that featured two athletes, one from the US and one from the USSR, in a friendly pose.

Roughly a decade after the first “All the Colors of the World” world campaign, Benetton released a modified version of these ads. In lieu of a line of smiling faces, however, the ad featured vials of blood labeled with different first names.Color Benetton advertisement, showing vials of blood. The vials are each labeled with a different. The names are ethnically diverse and include Fidel, Kaifu, Helmut, Jiang, George, and Mikhail. While still invoking the theme of inclusivity, the ad signaled a change in Benetton’s marketing aesthetic. In the 1990s, Benetton ads seemed to be more focused on shock value than clothing. Many of their most controversial images featured no Benetton clothing. Instead, they depicted a wide range of social and political phenomena, from soldiers in the Bosnian war, to a baby with its umbilical cord attached, to a nun and a priest kissing, to a dying AIDS activist. These advertisements were often met with backlash, calls for a boycott of Benetton goods, and, at times, with censorship. Toscani justified these ads in an interview with The New York Times in 1991, explaining that he saw advertising as both an artistic and political endeavor: “I have found out that advertising is the richest and most powerful medium existing today, so I feel responsible to do more than to say, ‘Our sweater is pretty.’” JWT and Benetton separated in 1992, but Benetton continues to test the limits of public reception with their advertising, despite experiencing a slip in popularity over the past two decades. As recently as 2018, a Benetton ad elicited vociferous criticism from politicians and consumers in Italy and around the world when it repurposed a photograph of migrants being rescued in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Benetton ads in the JWT archive shed light on how a fashion company adopted unconventional methods of advertising as a way to connect with a younger generation and bring awareness to social issues. At the same time, reactions to these ads indicate that consumers were uneasy with the confluence of fashion and social commentary. Today, clothing companies are increasingly placing social causes at the center of their ads, like British clothing chain Jigsaw and their 2017 “Love Immigration” campaign. Did Benetton’s advertisements pioneer this modern phenomenon of “brand activism”? Or were Benetton’s ads an example of a company commodifying social causes and taking advantage of the ethically murky waters of fashion advertising?

Event: Why Did the United States Medical School Admissions Quota for Jews End?

Why Did the United States Medical School Admissions Quota for Jews End?

Date: Thursday, April 11

Time: 5:30 p.m.

Location: Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room, Room 153, Rubenstein Library

Contact: Rachel Ingold, rachel.ingold@duke.edu, (919)684-8549

Professional photo of Dr. HalperinPlease join the History of Medicine Collections for our next Trent History of Medicine Lecture Series event. Edward C. Halperin, M.D., M.A. will present “Why Did the United States Medical School Admissions Quota for Jews End?” At the end of World War II anti-Semitic medical school admissions quotas were deeply entrenched in the United States. Twenty-five years later they were gone. Why did that happen and what are the implications for the current controversy regarding alleged quotas directed against Asian-Americans?

Dr. Halperin is Chancellor/Chief Executive Officer of the New York Medical College, Valhalla NY.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend. No registration is needed. A light reception will follow.

Radio Activism and the Politics of Grassroots Change

Post contributed by Jennifer Garcon, Bollinger Fellow in Public and Community Data Curation at Penn Libraries

One morning in July 1965, an unfamiliar voice radiated from the transistor radios of Port-au-Prince residents. Rather than hearing pre-recordings of President-for-Life, François Duvalier, residents heard the dissenting voices of exiles based in New York. The program, La Voix de l’Union Haïtienne Internationale, would become known as Radio Vonvon.  While they must have immediately recognized the dangers of tuning in, people unearthed radios hidden in kitchens and in bathrooms, and continued to listen to the clandestine program each Sunday, “to listen to words of hope about one day ending this nightmare, in the words of New York-based Haitian journalist Ricot Dupuy. This, I argue, was a political act.

My doctoral research explores how journalists deployed various media strategies to mobilize their audiences against dictatorship in Haiti. I centralize broadcasting because, I argue, 1) radio was, and in many places, remains a powerful cultural force; 2) the medium was easily accessible and widely available, and thus had unparalleled democratic appeal and influence; and 3) radio, unlike print media, does not require literacy as a prerequisite for participation. Radio, particularly Kreyòl language broadcasting, was a platform that embodies equity and democratized politics; and vernacular radio archives reflect this inclusion.

From a material culture standpoint, reduced cost and increased post-WWII supply transformed radio technology into a crucial instrument of struggle in Cold War Latin America, and elsewhere in the Global South. As historian Alejandra Bronfman reminds us in Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean, “the sounds of radio are [by their very nature of production and dissemination] ephemeral.” For that reason alone, the comprehensiveness of the Radio Haiti Records are indeed exceptional.

Using a sampling of the approximately 5300 recordings and 191 boxes of paper documents that constitute the Radio Haiti archives —  spanning  field reports, editorials, investigative reports, in-studio interviews, and special programming —  I built an argument that reframes the everyday activities of ordinary people as political activity and agitation.

Investigating radio listening as a form of political engagement allows for a more granular examination of the transformation of civil society that I argue occurred between 1971 and 1987, during the presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier and in the immediate aftermath of his fall from power. This, I contend, challenges the scholarly interpretations that mischaracterize peasants as politically inert throughout much of the Duvalier era, until the killing of three schoolboys in Gonaïves on November 28, 1985 (the Twa Flè Lespwa, or Three Flowers of Hope). In contrast, my research charts broad domestic ferment on the air-waves. Radio media, in addition to independent vernacular print outlets, offered a space where dispersed sectors of the Haitian population could critique and challenge state power. Radio records have helped to offer insights into patterns of open opposition to government excess that predate the 1985 killings. These included reactions to the murder of the young journalist Gasner Raymond, who was killed after investigating workers’ strikes at the state-owned cement factory in 1976;  rice farmers’ revolts against repressive local Macoutes in the Artibonite between 1977 and 1979; peasant farmers’ and workers’ opposition to Reynolds Haitian Mines in Miragoâne; attempted coups in 1981 and 1982, and anti-government bombings between 1980 and 1983.

Radio programming offered a discursive public space in which to practice one’s politics, where few other avenues remained. Having grown used to practicing forbidden forms of citizenship on the airwaves, this radio activism soon moved onto the streets. In the popular movement that uprooted Duvalierism, the Haitian majority– Kreyòl speaking peasant farmers, agricultural day laborers, and urban workers—who had once formed bases of support for the regime now demanded the end of the dictatorship. I plot the emergence of a nearly decade and a half long grassroots political movement against Jean-Claude Duvalier by examining radio media to show  how ordinary people first negotiated the terms of their citizenship within an authoritarian system, and later struggled to uproot that system in its entirety.

The complete audio archive of Radio Haiti will soon be available to the public via Duke’s Digital Repository, which will be an unparalleled resource for historians and other researchers interested in radio, political resistance, and the circulation of information in Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora.

When Beale Street Spoke in Haiti: From Port-au-Prince to the Oscars

This is a guest blog post by Nathan Dize, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University specializing in Haitian literature and history.

Cover of Baldwin's novel, "If Beale Street Could Talk"
First edition of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.

Twenty-eight days after the passing of James Baldwin, on December 28, 1987, Haitian writers Jan J. Dominique and Yanick Lahens and their cohost, bookseller Monique Lafontant, paid homage to the African American writer with a discussion of the significance of his novel If Beale Street Could Talk on Radio Haïti Inter’s weekly cultural program, Entre Nous. Set in New York City, the novel focuses on the lives of childhood friends-turned-lovers Tish and Fonny as they prepare to welcome their first child. The two are suddenly separated when Fonny is arrested and accused for the alleged rape of a Puerto Rican woman. Tish narrates the story as both her and Fonny’s families attempt to prove the young Black man’s innocence. Yanick Lahens begins with her review of the book, followed by a brief discussion of Baldwin’s literary career.

For Lahens, Beale Street is a “faithful and realistic portrait” of the generation of the Great Migration where African Americans moved to northern and industrial cities in the Midwest as a response to the tightening of Jim Crow legislation and racial violence in the South. More importantly, Lahens explains that the literary strength of the novel lies in the way it presents an “evolution of hope or extreme despair” as the plot unfolds. She argues that readers never completely slip into despair, yet readers cannot enjoy hopeful moments long enough to sustain a sense of optimism that Fonny will ever be freed from prison.

Photograph of James Baldwin.
Back cover of James Balwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.

In recent weeks, If Beale Street Could Talk has again been on the tips of critics’ tongues as Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the novel was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay. Critics of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-nominated adaptation of Beale Street have also focused on Baldwin’s ability to productively operate between the poles of hope and despair. While some reviewers bristle at how some of the novel’s more severe moments, like Tish and Fonny’s first sexual encounter, “shimmer romantically in Jenkins’ film,” other parts of the film faithfully reach for Baldwin’s depth of blues and melancholy. Back in 1987, Yanick Lahens explained that readers immediately encounter despair “from the first lines [of the novel] we see that this young man will never leave prison.”[1] Baldwin’s novel exposes the “judiciary machine” in the United States that gives the semblance of hope, but that will ultimately never let him go or leave the two families unscathed.[2]

Towards the end of her review, Lahens explains that the accents, the sounds, the feelings of the blues permeate Baldwin’s writing. These “accents of the blues” in Beale Street are found in the characters’ despair and bitterness in the face of Fonny’s imprisonment. In an essay from his collection Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin writes about his discovery of the language of the blues through the music of Bessie Smith, which Lahens reads in French:

“It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken when I was a pickaninny, and to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep […] I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America (in the same way that, for years, I never touched watermelon), but in Europe she helped me to reconcile myself to being a ‘nigger.’”

Photo of audio cassette tape.
Tape from the Radio-Haiti show Entre Nous. The title reads “Prix Deschamps 1987” (Jacques Godart) et Baldwin.

Some critics have claimed that Barry Jenkins’ adaptation is a failure, that Baldwin deserves better. “Is [Jenkins’] movie too beautiful?” Doreen St. Félix writes for the New Yorker. St. Félix agrees that film adaptations do not have to remain faithful to the text; they are adaptations, after all. But, the point where Lahens’ reading of Baldwin’s blues coincides with Jenkins’ film is perhaps best captured when Fonny’s old friend, the good-natured and affable Daniel, played by Brian Tyree Henry, tells Fonny about his arrest. St. Félix explains that this scene “is washed in a darkness that is incongruous with the rest of the film’s palette.” In the novel, Baldwin sounds the depths of despair as Daniel confesses that he was gang-raped in prison, instead Jenkins renders this aesthetically with color saturation. In his own right, Henry’s portrayal of Daniel’s character had many critics calling for him to be nominated for the Best Supporting Actor category. Brian Tyree Henry expertly contrasts moments of superficial cheer with sullen, vacant looks through clouds of cigarette smoke to convey Daniel’s fractured dignity. Beyond Henry’s performance, Regina King’s wails from the streets of Viejo San Juan also supremely express what Lahens describes as “all the accents of the blues,” earning her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Still image of Brian Tyree Henry.
Brian Tyree Henry in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) (Photo courtesy of Awardscircuit.com)

Baldwin’s discovery of the blues in the Swiss Alps is remarkable for Lahens, Dominique, and Lafontant who consider James Baldwin as a writer of the African American Diaspora. The three conclude the segment by comparing Baldwin to Haitian writers forced to flee the successive dictatorial regimes of François Duvalier and Jean-Claude Duvalier. For many of the journalists and employees of Radio Haïti Inter, forced exile remained an open wound as the station had just re-opened the previous year in October 1986. Decades later, when the radio station finally shuttered its doors, Jan J. Dominique herself would also eventually go into exile in Montreal in 2003, fleeing a violent climate towards the press that led to the assassination of her father, Radio Haiti director Jean Dominique, on April 3, 2000.

As I listened to this review on the eve of the 91st Academy Awards, I was reminded of the importance of James Baldwin in global expressions of Blackness in literature, how artists and writers have thought through and with Baldwin even after his passing. I am also reminded of the significance of the recording’s survival through the efforts of project archivist Laura Wagner and the other archivists, librarians, and graduate and undergraduates working at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The review of If Beale Street Could Talk is but the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, as a search in the Duke University Libraries Digital Repository leads to more than 4,000 individual recordings of cultural, historical, literary, and journalistic reportages from 1957-2003. At present, an excess of 4,800 of an approximate 5,300 recordings have been described and are either available or will be available online for listening this spring. So, as you process the results of this year’s Academy Awards, be sure to make a visit to the Radio Haiti Archives catalog and browse their collection that has just as much to do with Haiti’s past as it does with our cultural and historical present in 2019.

[1] “Dès la première ligne [du roman] on voit que ce bonhomme ne sortira pas de prison…”

[2] Yanick Lahens refers to the US judicial system a “machine judiciaire.”