Syllabus: Riot and Rebellion in U.S. Literature

A class I’m teaching:

Senior Seminar: Riot and Rebellion in American Literary History

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of July 1967—an event still alternately called a “riot” or a “rebellion,” with very different meanings implied by each word—this class will explore urban uprisings in American literature. The class is bookended by literary and cultural responses to Detroit 1967, but in between we’ll explore the draft riots of the Civil War era, which includes the 1863 Detroit riot, the Haymarket “riot” of 1886, the “Red Summer” of 1919, the Watts uprising of 1965, and the Ferguson and Baltimore riots of recent years.

Required Readings:

Charles Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition

John Hersey, The Algiers Motel Incident 

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth 

Walter Mosley, Little Scarlet

Course Schedule

Jan. 10: Claude McKay, “If We Must Die,” Juliana Spahr, “Turnt,” Margaret Danner, “Garnishing the Aviary,” Langston Hughes, “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943,” Dudley Randall, “Ballad of Birmingham,” Bill McGraw, “Riot or rebellion? The debate over what to call the 1967 disorder continues”

Listen: Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America,” Stanford University, Apr. 14, 1967;  John Lee Hooker, “The Motor City is Burning,” and the cover by the MC5, The Clash, “White Riot”

To watch in class: Gangs of New York (excerpt on the 1863 draft riots)

Jan. 17: Read: Gwendolyn Brooks, Riot (Broadside Press, 1969), Kerner Commission, pp. 1-13, Philip Levine, “They Feed They Lion,” Marvin Jackmon, “Burn, Baby, Burn”

Listen: The Trammps, “Disco Inferno,” Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Marvin Gaye, “What’s Goin’ On,” The Rolling Stones, “Street Fighting Man,” The Damned, “Smash It Up”

Jan 20: Writing exercise 1 due on Blackboard: keyword analysis

NB: Mon., Jan 23 is the last day to drop classes with tuition reimbursement.

Jan. 24: John Hersey, Algiers Motel Incident, pp.7-37, 63-142, 157-204

Listen: The Impressions, “The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story”

Jan. 31: John Hershey, The Algiers Motel Incident , 219-293, 304-326, 345-352, 379-385, 392-394

Listen: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “I Care About Detroit,” Ice Cube, “We Had To Tear This Mothafucka Up”

NB: Classes dropped by Feb. 5 will not appear on your transcript.

Feb. 7: Broadside/Lotus/Third World Press: Selected poems by Dudley Randall, Carolyn Rodgers, and Naomi Lane Madgett, Melba Boyd, Roses and Revolutions, Chapter 1

Listen: Sly and the Family Stone, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” The Bar-Kays, “Son of Shaft” (from the Wattstax film)

Feb. 9: Writing exercise 2 due on Blackboard: unpacking simile, metaphor, and symbol

Feb. 14: Frantz Fanon, “On Violence,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid,” Jonathan Chait, “Obama, Ferguson, and the Torments of Liberalism,” George Cicciarello-Maher, “Riots Work,” Salon, Brittney Cooper, “America’s New Racial Low Point,” Salon, Dudley Randall, “Sniper”

Listen: Run The Jewels, “Thieves”

Feb. 21: Walter Mosley, Little Scarlet

Listen: Junior Murvin, “Police and Thieves,” The Clash, “Police and Thieves”

Feb. 28: José Martí, “A Terrible Drama,” William Dean Howells, “Clemency for the Anarchists,” Caleb Crain, “The Terror Last Time,” The New Yorker, Lucy Parsons, “I Am An Anarchist”

Listen: Hazel Dickens, “Rebel Girl” (lyrics by Joe Hill), Bikini Kill, “Suck My Left One”

Mar. 7: Meet at the Burton Collection, Detroit Public Library

Read: A Thrilling Narrative From the Lips of the Sufferers of the Late Detroit Riot, Glenn Hendler, “Feeling Like a State: Writing the 1863 New York City Draft Riots”

Listen: Ice Cube, “When Will They Shoot?”

Mar. 9: Writing exercise #2 due: 1-page critical summary of an archival image or text 

Mar. 14: No class-spring break

Mar. 21: Charles Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition; material from the Norton critical edition: “1898 Wilmington Riot Commission Findings,” “Hell Jolted Loose,” Negro Rule Ended, Washington Post (Nov. 11, 1898)

Mar. 28: Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition; “Sheet Music from the 1890s,” “Dusky Dinah: Cake-Walk and Patrol,” “Way Down South: Characteristic March, Cake-Walk and Two-Step”

Apr. 4: Watch: Zoot Suit

Read: Catherine Ramírez, “Saying “Nothin'”: Pachucas and the Languages of Resistance”

Apr. 11: Suzanne Smith, Dancing in the Street, “’The Happening’: Detroit, 1967”; Scott Saul, “What You See Is What You Get”: Wattstax, Richard Pryor, and the Secret History of the Black Aesthetic (focus on section 3, “As Real as Real Can Get,” and watch the accompanying clip

Listen: Martha and the Vandellas, “Dancing in the Street”

Thesis workshop part 1

Apr. 18: Watch: Finally Got the News

Thesis workshop part 2













In defense of George Cicciarello-Maher!

George Cicciarello-Maher, a brilliant political theorist at Drexel, has been the target of a right-wing harassment campaign led by the sorry likes of Mike Cernovich and Breitbart media. In a very short-sighted, weak response to this Twitter outrage campaign, Drexel issued a statement disavowing George, calling his statements on Twitter “reprehensible,” and suggesting some sort of discipline to come.  I’d encourage everyone to push back against Drexel’s ill-advised response to a very loud, increasingly organized online mob. It’s hard to understand what Drexel think it’s accomplished here: if the university had simply ignored the Christmas Eve rantings of professional bigots on Twitter, it would all be forgotten by now. The story only still exists because Drexel issued a statement. This is either very poor media relations practice or something more ominous.

Feel free to copy the letter below, or change it. The addresses you need are:President John Anderson Fry (,  Provost M. Brian Blake (, and Executive Director of Media Relations Niki Gianakaris (

I am writing in distress and disappointment over Drexel’s recent statement castigating Dr. Cicciarello-Maher for his tweets mocking the racist fantasy of “white genocide.” This term refers to a belief that policies promoting racial diversity, immigration, and religious tolerance–all values which Drexel purports to defend–amount to genocidal campaign against “white culture.” Cicciarello-Maher added later that the slave revolt in Haiti was a “very good thing indeed”–a claim about which there can be little serious argument, at least at a reputable institution of higher learning.

The controversy was quite deliberately fabricated by Mike Cernovich, a notorious conspiracy theorist with a widespread following on the racist right. As I have seen on Twitter, the voices clamoring for Dr. Cicciarello-Maher’s firing are almost uniformly vile–open anti-semites, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and other political bottom-feeders. I wish I could understand what Drexel hoped to accomplish by appeasing a far-right campaign against one of its faculty. If the idea was to make the “controversy,” such as it was, go away, you have clearly not succeeded in this regard. Indeed, bending to an obscene mob only emboldens it–and encourages future campaigns of harassment against members of the Drexel community.

I am proud to count George as a colleague. I know that his research and pedagogy are first-rate, brave, insightful, and open-minded–adjectives I cannot apply to the mob calling for his firing, or even worse. Drexel is very lucky to count him on its faculty. For this reason, I hope that your meeting with Dr. Cicciarello-Maher will be a productive discussion on how to extend the values of academic freedom to free-wheeling precincts of social media where it needs protection.


Keywords for the Age of Austerity 27: Synergy

Unlike “lean,” “flexible,” and “nimble” management, which are ways of dressing up the vulnerability and disposability of workers in a language of efficiency, “synergy” dresses up the vulnerability of executives in a language of unity

Synergy, n: 1) Joint action, cooperation; esp. (Theol.) cooperation between human will and divine grace in the work of regeneration. 2) Any interaction or cooperation which is mutually reinforcing; a dynamic, productive, or profitable affinity, association, or link.

Yea, there should be a Synergie, and conspiration of all Arts and Sciences to advance Theology, which makes the better Part of us happy. 

–George Thomson, Galeno-pale, or, A chymical trial of the Galenists, that their dross in physick may be discovered with the grand abuses and disrepute they have brought upon the whole art of physick and chirurgery, 1665

It’s not real…it’s an illusion!

–Jem, 1985

My most recent rejection letter regretted to inform me that due to a large number of applications, the selection committee was forced to place “a premium on intellectual synergies.”

The form-letter writers used the plural form of a noun whose use in business circles peaked in the 1990s and early 2000s. “Synergies,” is often a precious version of “sympathies” or “compatibility.” “Synergy,” in the singular, meant something more grandiose: organizational harmony, efficiency, the achievement of a unity that is greater than the sum of its parts. Now, however, “synergy” regularly appears on listicles about buzzwords to avoid—one consultant interviewed by Forbes complained that “it never fails to make me think of my wife’s childhood obsession with Jem and the Holograms.” Let us follow this thread for a moment.


Mild-mannered Jerrica, as you may recall, turned into Jem via a powerful Holographic machine/talking computer named Synergy. Synergy described herself as “the ultimate audiovisual synthesizer” with the power to project realistic holograms onto physical objects. With just a tug on her earring (which was actually a miniature remote holographic projector) Synergy could project the image of Jem and the Holograms onto Jerrica and her otherwise square friends. All she had to do was say, “Showtime, Synergy!” Watch as Jerrica meets Synergy for the first time.

“It’s not real…it’s an illusion!”

Jem’s Dad’s invention’s synthesis of the aural and visual field hits on the fanciful, even utopian connotations once carried by the word before it became a buzzword in mergers and acquisitions. The word’s common definition, according to the OED, is “any interaction or cooperation which is mutually reinforcing,” like Jem and her Holograms. By contrast, the Misfits, the Holograms’ archenemy, were often undone by the rifts in their organization between ruthless rich girl Pizzazz and Stormer, who Wikipedia refers to as the “sensitive keytar player” (is there any other kind?) who lacked the killer instinct to destroy her rival group.

Most early uses of “synergy” were biological, referring to the coordinated action driving animal bodies, cells, and organs. The “synergy” of human gestation was an especially common usage, which takes on added significance given that Jerrica’s dad programs Synergy with her deceased mother’s voice and likeness, as Renee Angle notes. Synergy’s other meaning is theological, much like “innovation.”: “synergy” in a Protestant sense referred to “cooperation between human will and divine grace.” If innovation once referred negatively to the hubris of self-appointed prophets who claimed to speak God’s will, “synergy” was its humble, virtuous opposite: the co-partnership of human and divine effort, God’s collaboration with us.

The word came into wider use in the 20th century via Lester Ward, an ex-botanist and paleontologist who became the first president of the American Sociological Association. A self-taught disciple of the positivist thinker Auguste Comte, he coined “synergy” to describe a governing principle of all social structure. Synergy, wrote Ward, was the dynamic clash of opposing forces in nature, as well as human social structures. (In 1905, bored with his work at the Smithsonian, he wrote to the president of Brown University to inquire about the possibility of teaching sociology there. Brown’s president apparently said “sure.” In this era of the academic job market, intellectual synergies were easier to come by.)

Like many of today’s entrepreneurship-and-innovation hucksters, who hunt for validations of contemporary business cant in history and the natural world, Ward saw synergy as a biological principle that also governed social life. Ward’s descendants are writers like Steven Johnson, a bestselling author in the popular-science-cum-business-advice genre. In books like Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, he argues that there are seven typologies for optimal, innovation-friendly environments, which can be observed across nature and across time (in order to understand where good ideas come from, Johnson writes, “we have to put them in context.” At the same time, evolutionary “innovation” in a coral reef and the diffusion of ideas on the Internet are analogous concepts. So much for context.) Or Bill O’Connor of the Innovation Genome Project, an organization whose name also suggests a biological drive to “innovate.” In all of human history, says O’Connor, there have only been seven kinds of questions that have driven all innovations. Only seven. (The sacramental number seven is popular in this genre, suggesting that there may be cultural, rather than scientific, forces at work here.)

Synergy’s first real vogue, though, came in the 1960s: one of its earliest appearances in the US media came in a 1966 New Yorker profile of Buckminster Fuller. Fuller’s utopian, eccentric projects—the Dymaxion car, the geodesic dome—came from a modernist conviction that technological advances could render obsolete the social problems of penury and waste. We could, in effect, engineer our way out of inequality and war. Synergy, or what he called “synergetics,” was the science and faith of this conviction. The example Fuller gave the reporter in his profile was chromium-nickel-iron alloys, which together held up against much more intense heat than their constitutive elements could have done. This “invisible pattern” was synergy, “a term,” the author explained, “that can be defined as the behavior of whole systems in ways unpredictable by the individual behavior of their sub-systems.”

There was thus a degree of serendipity in these unpredictable, invisible patterns yet to reveal themselves. And the social possibilities they might allow were just as consequential. Alloy steel’s resistance to heat made it very popular for the twentieth-century war machine, Fuller lamented. But if this synergy were applied not to weaponry, but to housing and education—what Fuller called “livingry”—it could work wonders. As the New Yorker put it with now-quaint confidence: “the shift of industry to the new invisible base has brought about such spectacular gains in over-all efficiency, such demonstrated ability to produce more and more goods and services from fewer and fewer resources, that mankind as a whole has inevitably profited.”

Synergy gained further currency in the work of Abraham Maslow, the organizational psychologist who used it to describe the ideal state in which the interests of an employee and his boss are harmonized at work. Borrowing the term from the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, Maslow defined synergy as

the social-institutional arrangements which fuse selfishness and unselfishness, by transcending their oppositeness and polarity so that the dichotomy between selfishness and altruism is resolved and transcended and formed into a new higher unity.

Here, we might once again call upon Jerrica’s holographic alter ego to point out that workplace synergy, as Maslow describes is here, is fundamentally not real life. “Synergy” is more often just a mask.

What is it hiding in business jargon? Mergers are thought be bring synergy (or “synergies”) to companies that on their own lack economies of scale or product they would gain in a merged firm. Maslow’s “higher unity” ideal was already rolling eyes in 1989, when Steve Lohr in the New York Times quoted a McKinsey executive: “synergy in most cases is another name for head-count reductions.” (“Head-count reductions,” of course, is another name for “you’re fired.”)

This is where “synergy” enters the austerity lexicon of today’s economy. Unlike “lean,” “flexible,” and “nimble” management, which are ways of dressing up the vulnerability and disposability of workers in a language of efficiency, “synergy” dresses up the vulnerability of executives in a language of unity. For this reason, its exuberant usage was always defensive, tinged with a bit of dread. It’s a dread displaced by that Forbes consultant onto his wife’s childhood cartoon obsession. One anonymous investor in 1989 put it this way: ‘All this management gobbledygook is to mask the real issue,” he said, “which is that these companies are afraid of being taken over by someone who will get rid of the current crop of executives.”

Showtime, synergy!





“The motherfuckers who deal with intangibles are the motherfuckers who are rewarded in society”

A great film, about which so much can and should be written, but: this clip basically sums up most of what this blog has to say about the fantasy and morality of innovation. The new motto of Keywords for the Age of Austerity:

“And the motherfuckers who deal with intangibles are the motherfuckers who are rewarded in society”

What About Tolerance for Intolerance? pt. 2

In my last post, I wrote about the way Trump supporters at the University of Michigan have borrowed a language of multiculturalism to frame their far-right political choices as a vulnerable identity. One group of Trump-voting Wolverines sent a petition to University President Mark Schlissel, complaining that his post-election statements on intolerance and bigotry in the Trump campaign amounted to “bias” and “intimidation” against them. The pro-Trump students’ framed their unpopularity on college campuses as a kind of  minority position, any criticism or opposition to which then constitutes a threat to “diversity.” And some of their supporters agreed, under the tortured logic that if intolerance is bad, then intolerance for intolerance must also be bad. No tolerance for intolerance of intolerance!

This is confusing and galling for any number of reasons, the most important of which is that the Ann Arbor campus has seen a rise in incidents of white-supremacist intimidation over the last few months. If anyone is looking for intimidation, they should look there.

Dr. Schlissel didn’t help matters, recently issuing a statement that appeared to equate actual incidents of racial intimidation against Michigan students with criticism of Trump voters’ racism:

We saw a threatening message painted on the rock near our campus; a student walking near campus was threatened with being lighted on fire because she wore a hijab; another student left his apartment to go to class and found a swastika with a message telling him to go home.  Some students have also been shouted at and accused of being racist because of their political views.

Some students are threatened with murder by racists; others are shouted at for being racist.

The pro-Trump students’ campaign against the supposed “bias” against them (again, read: their unpopularity) reached a kind of absurd crescendo, when Amanda Delekta of the College Republicans met with Dr. Schlissel and requested a “unity campaign,” as reported recently in the New York Times. This is what also gets me: the Trump-voting students position themselves as an activist faction, borrowing a sort of posture or attitude from the left. But at the same time, they expect the university administration to embrace them for doing so. At no point in my own career as an activist on college campuses did it ever once occur to me that I should expect the enthusiastic endorsement of the college president as a precondition.

When Ms. Delekta met with Michigan’s president, Dr. Schlissel, she brought Enrique Zalamea, president of the College Republicans, along with her. They proposed a kind of unity campaign for campus, in which students would march with signs saying, “I am a Wolverine,” to stress their similarities.

And they suggested some TED-type sessions on inclusivity and diversity.


But in borrowing some of the terms (diversity, inclusion, community) and the posture (an activist faction silenced by the administration) of student activists of the left, these students cleverly appropriate the discourse of the liberal university for illiberal ends. The ease with which this can be accomplished only emphasizes the importance of efforts at places like Swarthmore College, which aim to push institutions way from ineffectual bromides about “values” and “diversity” and “unity” and into clear public positions on its obligations to vulnerable student populations.