Tuesday, 19 October 2021 08:07

“We’s Who’s the Earth is For”: Storm Visions

Published in Films

Ciarán O’Rourke reviews Take Shelter and Beasts of the Southern Wild                                                                                      

A decade ago I began to form a habit that in the intervening years has evolved into a strange passion: going to the cinema, and watching movies, alone! Two films in particular, from those early days, seemed so urgent and exhilarating, so attuned to what was then (and is still) being talked about as the greatest threat to civilization, climate change, but at a human level, that I lay a good deal of the responsibility for my cinematical hermeticism at their feet.

I saw Take Shelter and Beasts of the Southern Wild in short succession, and they both taught me something about how to see, and read, and think about environmental devastation as a collective experience, from the confines of my own small life. Each picture still filters my understanding of the many dooms that are already taking shape about us, and are promised to intensify in the time ahead.

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Take Shelter (2011) begins with an apocalypse that only Curtis (Michael Shannon) can see, which nevertheless threatens to envelop everything he knows. Staring at trees shaking and shimmering in the wind, Curtis watches, as in the backdrop an immense storm cloud gathers, and oleaginous rain begins to splatter his shirt and hair. The film proceeds as a close-focused portrait of a loner in crisis, as Curtis risks his job, family, financial stability, and standing in his community to build an underground bunker for his loved ones, in anticipation of an ecological and social disaster that nobody else understands, or wants to.

Jeff Nichols’s film offers (as the title suggests) an admonitory projection of an atomised America drowning in a storm of oil, a storm that only one incorrigibly reticent man, whose sanity is questioned throughout, can discern. Take Shelter was released three years before the Flint water crisis laid bare the reality of the USA’s poisoned waters, along with the social regimes ensuring that some people would suffer the effects of failed public infrastructure more than others. Likewise in 2005, six years prior to Nichols’s picture, the people of New Orleans had been left to fend for themselves by the federal government in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and were then criminalised for surviving. Nichols’s cinematic parable is alert to the reality of these murder-traps, and still perturbs, mixing fantastical foreboding with the sharp, persistent tang of realism.

The downtrodden longing of dispossessed communities

Watching the movie now, it’s difficult to imagine any other actor than Shannon for the part of Curtis. Shannon, in his late thirties in the film, has the truculent, creviced features and uneasy, watchful gaze of an ageing veteran from a forgotten war. He conveys both seething anxiety and blank-eyed stolidity, and seems always to have wandered onto the screen from some Great Nowhere, that lost hinterland where America’s ghosts have been left to die. Curtis wakes from nightmares screaming, or asphyxiated in terrified paralysis. When lightning crashes in a far-off field, he flinches, and lurches instinctively to draw his young daughter (who is deaf) into the house. The lines between sight and vision, climactic crisis and personal breakdown, grow blurry, as Curtis mutters in disbelief and trepidation: “Is anyone seeing this?”

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In some respects, Shannon is comparable to Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, the “only actor” of the 1930s with whom the writer James Baldwin “identified” as a youth, just “by the way [he] walked down the road at the end of the film”. For Baldwin, Fonda’s onscreen presence was such that his whiteness was almost erased, composed not of savage entitlement but of empathic anger and downtrodden longing: he epitomised in his person those dispossessions endured by predominantly black and brown communities in the actual nation that Baldwin knew while growing up. The foreboding that we see encoded into Shannon’s permanently pained expressions is partly the face of white America turned back upon itself; he is a witness to catastrophe that none of his neighbours recognise, and against which there is no protection.

Nichols’s picture is set in America’s backlands, near Elyria, Ohio, where Walmart remains one of the city's top five employers, and (in the movie) Curtis and his friend Dewart (Shea Whigam) work in a gravel pit. Left deflated and unappeased by liberal policy-makers in Washington, within half a decade of the film’s making, places like this would embrace the demagogic populism of Donald Trump, as he began his march to the White House. The dread Curtis feels in nightmares, as friends and neighbours are driven to acts of visceral violence and desperation, accurately foreshadows the rancour and resentment stoked by Trump in reality.

In the micro-drama of Curtis’s escalating distress, which may be madness, we also glimpse the macro-epic of climate catastrophe, baring its fangs. “It rained for two hours yesterday”, his boss snaps in exasperation, “Two hours, and our entire [drilling] schedule went into the toilet.” Industrial productivity, not to mention human survival, becomes considerably more difficult and dangerous when the natural systems it depends on move with a gargantuan rhythm and momentum of their own. Take Shelter registers the pulse of a maelstrom that later films like Parasite dramatise in full-blown action.

Bird-murmurations swarm the skies, then vanish at a glance. When Curtis expresses his disquiet during a medical appointment, his doctor swivels his chair away from him, asking, “You been out to see your mother”, living in psychiatric care, “lately?” For Curtis, to question the seeming complacency of his peers is to be consigned to outsider status, exiled. When he does visit his mother (Kathy Baker), he wonders quietly if she can remember what happened before she was “diagnosed”. “It was a real stressful time”, she says in a soft voice, “Your father was gone a lot... there was always a panic that took hold of me.”

Nichols’s visual grammar is often so beguiling because of his parallel capacity to enter the inner (and intimate) life of his characters. Much of the power of Take Shelter, indeed, lies in its recognition that many of its central characters can’t: the precarity and many burdens of their days are such that the very idea of safety, sustainable comfort, enduring happiness is constantly endangered. “You got a good life”, says Dewart to his friend and workmate. “Well, it ain't always so easy”, Curtis replies, looking away.

This is a drama in which basic medical procedures and prescriptions are frequently out of financial reach; where people are expected to pay (somehow), or suffer. Curtis’s wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), sells hand-sewn curtains and quilts at the local car-boot sale for extra cash. When Curtis gets “a home-improvement loan” from the bank to build the tornado shelter in his back garden, he jeopardizes his ability to cover the expense of Hannah’s hearing implants. “How could you do that without talking to me”, Samantha almost pleads: “Tell me something that helps me understand why you're being like this.” He breathes heavily: “There's nothing to explain.”

Private calamity and collective crisis

Communication and understanding, their necessity and frustration, are organising motifs in this strangely symphonic drama of private calamity and collective crisis. We watch transfixed as Chastain’s Samantha, whose searching intelligence makes even silence eloquent, teaches Hannah “a new sign” word, and the windows of the house grow grey: “S-T-O-R-M”. When Curtis eventually tells his wife about the “dreams, I guess they're more like nightmares”, he evokes the “dark, thick rain, like fresh motor-oil.” Such terse, weighted lines could be taken from a play by Sam Shepard (an actor-writer who adds to the grounded gravitas of Nichols’s 2012 feature, Mud). “It’s not just a dream”, Curtis says, “It’s a feeling. I’m afraid something might be coming. Something that’s not right. I cannot describe it. I just need you to believe me.” The times are out of joint.

The question of belief, of human faith-in-one-another, is resolved only ambiguously in this movie, which brings us face to face with a premonition of extinction that is at once powerful and difficult to absorb in full. Curtis’s slow diffidence and physical unease nevertheless convey what we (and he) cannot quite define in verbal terms.

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The picture is in some respects comparable to Field of Dreams (1989), in which despite accusations from all sides of insanity, financial and medical, the character Ray (Kevin Costner) knows that “if he builds” a baseball field on his land, “people will come”:

They’ll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past… Then they’ll walk off to the bleachers, sit in their shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon… and they’ll watch the [baseball] game, and it will be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.

Curtis’s nightmares repeat the same parable, but in altered form. If he builds his storm shelter, the apocalypse he’s felt brewing for so long will strike: his worst fears will be vindicated..

In a vivid distillation of Curtis’s anguish and isolation, after fighting with Dewart in the mess hall, frothing at the mouth he yells: “There is a storm coming. Like nothing you've ever seen. And not one of you is prepared for it.” None of his friends and neighbours can look him in the eye. “Sleep well in your beds”, he screams, “because if this comes true there ain’t gonna be any more.” Then, turning to Samantha and Hannah, his eyes clearing as he meets their faces, he crumples into tears, in agony and shame.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius”, Emerson once wrote, urging that each “man” should “carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he”. Curtis’s actions exemplify the stubborn wildness of such a credo, while exposing the preposterous insulation of its originator. Curtis’s need to trust his convictions “in the presence of all opposition”, his will to act on the recurring, fearful visions he sees, cost him nearly all he has. Emerson’s sermon at the pulpit exacted no such toll on the eminent philosopher. 

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In similarly immersive fashion, Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) dramatises the experience, at an almost bodily level, of fragility in the midst of social and climactic collapse. Set on a small Louisiana island, in a forgotten town called The Bathtub, the film is narrated and led by Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in a decrepit portakabin, suspended by trees, with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Their home is alive with rust, and roots; lit by weather and lived in by birds and (sometimes the strangest of) beasts.

The first words we hear in the film, in voiceover, are faltering, precise, and powerfully expressive of the world Hushpuppy knows and the binding laws she intuits to be true there: “All the time, everywhere, everything's hearts are beatin’ and squirtin’, and talkin’ to each other the ways I can't understand.” Hushpuppy's statement of incomprehension is deep and real with wisdom, partly because (like Curtis) she understands more, perhaps, than she can allow herself to say out loud.

We see Hushpuppy holding a chick in her small hands firmly, and yet with total gentleness. Patrolling a nearby junkyard in her faded yellow wellington boots, she lays her arm across a recumbent hog, sleeping in the mud, and listens for its heartbeat, a gesture she repeats throughout the film, motivated by the nameless but palpable sickness that is increasingly depleting Wink of energy and aggravating his mood.

“I hope you die”, she shouts at Wink, after he has struck her in anger and panic. She punches his chest, and we see, on his face, a flicker of remorse and grief. He will die (soon), and he recognises that at some instinctive level Hushpuppy already knows it. When Wink collapses, in seizure, a rumble of thunder sounding in the skies, Hushpuppy quivers in open-eyed distress at this great apocalypse descending on her father, and overtaking their life together, which is grubby, precarious, and full.

The earth is for us

Hushpuppy and Wink fish in a scrap-metal boat that floats on the mud-brown river, which, as in one of Mark Twain’s quintessential (and insightful) yarns, is always “raising”. After floods, the water becomes choked, in large measure due to a forbidding levee, which separates Hushpuppy and her people from the smoke-spewing industrial landscape beyond, where the American State reigns. “Ain't that ugly over there”, Wink says, nodding in the direction of the factory towers: “We got the prettiest place on earth.” In moments like this, Benh Zeitlin’s film (his first) has truth and grit in equal measure, which may account for its overall vitality, its magnificent flavour.

“They built the wall that cut us off”, Hushpuppy proclaims, with a kind of triumph: “They think we all gonna drown down here, but we ain't goin nowhere... The Bathtub has more holidays than the rest of the world!” In the form of The Bathtub, the commons has survived, and we see its openness and revelry, the plenteous river, and the fellowship that thrives in and around it, up-close. This is a place where people share their resources, knowledge, and company, together in nature.

“Everything is part of the buffet of the universe”, smiles the kindly Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana), who tells the local huddle of listening children before her of the fierce, ravenous aurochs, now extinct, which once roamed the earth. As Wink’s illness takes hold of his body, violent storms rocking and wracking their home, Hushpuppy is haunted by these creatures, looming and immense: they shadow her world. “I'm recording my story for the scientists of the future”, she says, without irony, fear or self-pity.

This is also, however, a community attuned to its own destruction. “Ice-caps gonna melt, water's gonna rise”, Miss Bethsheba says, so “y’all better learn to survive now”, an instruction Hushpuppy internalises, and converts to poetry, saying in a boat-speak vernacular:

One day, the storm's gonna blow, the ground's gonna sink, and the water's gonna rise up so high, there ain't gonna be no Bathtub, just a whole bunch of water.... But me and my Daddy, we stay right here. We’s who’s the earth is for.

The radicalism of Hushpuppy’s worldview is all the more startling for her resounding trust in it. Her intent, soft, observing eyes, her mellow, thoughtful words, find truth wherever they rest. “We’s who’s the earth is for.”

Take Shelter conjures the terror of a grown man who is both lost and anchored in a world over-shadowed by mortal catastrophes; Beasts of the Southern Wild re-creates the lush and often urgent textures of childhood, a time of true magic and deep yearning, in this case imperilled by those hungry predators,  natural death, social and environmental devastation, and a coercive State. When Wink commits an act of sabotage on the dam in an attempt to clear the area of the now-stagnant waters, police and rescue teams arrive to implement an “emergency evacuation”, forcibly transferring the Bathtub community into homeless services. “It didn't look like a prison”, Hushpuppy remarks of the crowded medical centre where Wink is transferred, “It looked like a fish-bowl with no water.”  If it is stirringly humane and fluently constructed, the film remains in touch (in A.S. Hamrah’s words) with “an America that is divorced from social services and beset by environmental collapse.”

The movie holds in balance an unflinching recognition of precarious lives faced down by (sometimes lethal) inevitabilities, and a child’s experience of community and fellowship – with nature and her people. Everything Hushpuppy loves comes close to vanishing, or actually dies, as the monsters that stalk her life knock down the walls, covering her world with swampy water.

Without shirking its responsibility to these sureties and circumstances, the final act dares to imagine some of the ways in which lost children may find warmth and protection nonetheless: in the arms of outcasts, or in the companionship of one another. Hushpuppy can walk back to the “raising” river and call it home. As we look into a future defined by certain loss and potential planetary ruin, the tenderness and fierce courage of this film quickens the heart.

Further Reading

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976).

A. S. Hamrah, The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing 2002-2018 (2019).

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841). 

Singing new forms of escape: Paul Robeson's afterlife in a U.S. prison
Tuesday, 19 October 2021 08:07

Singing new forms of escape: Paul Robeson's afterlife in a U.S. prison

Published in Music

Shana L. Redmond writes about Paul Robeson’s afterlife in a U.S. Prison

“I have begun to undertake the task of trying to establish a Paul Robeson month here at Marion Federal Penitentiary,” wrote Bil Brown-El. An incarcerated person in the medium security prison in rural Illinois, USA, Brown-El addressed his June 1977 letter to Tony Gittens, director of the Electric Playhouse in Washington D.C. Brown-El was aware of the film festivals held by Gittens in his hometown and hoped that, with the proper setting of his conditions, his humble request would be met favorably. He continued,

 From the very outset I would like to say that this have never been accomplished before here at the institution. There are very limited programs dealing with our people here at Marion, as well as very few films dealing with our people, black people, very few—education[al] or other. It would be [a] joy to see this project; a Paul Robeson month get off to a good start.

Beyond the need for more cultural opportunities at the prison for Black people, Brown-El argues that the answer to the question of why pursue this course is “very simple”: “Paul Robeson is one of America’s greatest men.” His use of the present verb tense, alongside his earlier frustration with those who “are ignorant to just who Paul Robeson is/was,” highlights that Paul had not left the world nor these precarious men, even a year and a half after his death.

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Marion penitentiary, Illinois

Prison may seem a surprising location in which to find the great singer, actor, and radical Paul Robeson (1898-1976) but he knew something of those people and conditions. Though never incarcerated himself, Robeson was the son of a formerly enslaved man who secured his freedom through escape from a North Carolina plantation. He also lived through eight years (1950-58) of detention in the United States when his passport was revoked due to his political labors and global solidarities. He spoke in support of the incarcerated Scottsboro Boys in 1935 and the Trenton Six in 1949, as well as his comrade Ben Davis, whose membership and activism in the Communist Party, USA was used to convict and imprison him under the Smith Act in that same year.

Economic dispossession and political repression

Robeson was passionately and vocally opposed to the conditions of economic dispossession and political repression that produce imprisonment within Black communities, all the while forwarding alternatives to that violence. And though it would be inaccurate to label Robeson an anti-prison activist, his commitments are aligned with the urgent calls from contemporary Black U.S. communities and organizers for prison abolition, which abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as change that is “deliberately everything-ist” in its design and impact. It is then not a surprise that imprisoned people would seek Robeson out as Brown-El did, especially in the 1970s when incarceration in the U.S. was rapidly becoming the way to contain and disappear poverty and Black insurgency.

Though the proposed program at Marion Penitentiary was less spectacular and significantly less resourced than that which occurred in universities and museums all over the world, it was no less researched. Brown-El began his time with Robeson well before his communication with Gittens. While in solitary confinement at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, he read “Paul Robeson: Farewell to a Fighter,” by Carlyle Douglas, a writer for Ebony magazine who covered Robeson’s 1976 memorial at Mother A.M.E. Church where his older brother Ben had pastored for more than twenty years. In it, Douglas describes the “knots of sombre people” who braved a rainy Harlem day to honour Robeson. Amongst the strangers and members of multiple former vanguards (“the old Harlem Writers Guild, the Old Left…”) were

ideologues whose visions he had shared and supported, there were people whose personal resolve had been strengthened by the example of his steel-hard integrity, and people who loved him because he sang of them and to them with a voice unmatched in its combination of technical mastery and natural beauty.

The Negro spirituals and world folk songs that define Robeson’s career were inspiration to hundreds of thousands of people or more, and include his famed “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” which declares in verse two that “freedom shall be mine.” His unwavering belief in ultimate justice undoubtedly encouraged many to brave the weather and crowds in order to pay their last respects. Descriptions of the memorial were bookends to Robeson’s life, which Douglas covered in broad, yet thoughtful, strokes.

Like any good story, the highs and lows are dramatic and the lessons profound. Brown-El wrote to Douglas that since its reading he had “become conscious of self.” He went on to read Robeson’s Here I Stand (1958), which he later described as a book that fundamentally changed him: “after reading it, re-reading, and still reading it I realized that I have become addicted to Robeson-ism.” From this conversion developed a month-long program in honor of Robeson and an opportunity for Brown-El and his fellow men to continue responding to the world beyond their walls. 

The “five[-]part affair” that Brown-El describes to Gittens, which was sponsored by The Black Culture Society (BCS) at Marion, included panels as well as guest speakers from Southern Illinois University, and culminated in a screening of Robeson’s 1933 breakout film, The Emperor Jones. Originally a play by Eugene O’Neill in which Robeson also starred, the film adapts the story of Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter convicted of murder who escapes imprisonment and ultimately finds himself on a fictitious Caribbean island where, through coercion and quick-wittedness, he becomes the leader of the local people.

Like the other examples of Depression-era Black performance studied by Stephanie Batiste, The Emperor Jones “shows that black culture also contained an aggressive current of desire for power.” The real-life evidence of this desire for power is precisely what drew scholar Michele Stephens’s attention to Pan-African icon Marcus Garvey, who she juxtaposes with the original O’Neill play.

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Proclaiming himself the provisional President of Africa in 1920, Garvey, like Jones, used decorative opulence and pomp and circumstance to stabilize the legitimacy of his reign as leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and, by extension, the wider Black world. Both men would, however, fall victim to the “true tragedy” of the Negro emperor, which included a failure to use his power to sustain meaningful collectivity beyond the nation and, according to Stephens,

[e]ven more dangerously, his transnationalism spoke most powerfully to a specific segment of the black American population, the group least likely to find social acceptance and the rights of full citizenship in American and, therefore, the group least interested in their cultural Americanization, the black working poor.

The choice of The Emperor Jones as a capstone event for the BCS Paul Robeson Month comes into sharper focus within this context. Seeing a Black man successfully flee, capture and seize his freedom, must have been compelling for those at Marion, yet it is precisely the group that Stephens mentions here who Brown-El envisioned as he planned the screening. They were not simply caged men; they were the Black and working poor, the most shunned and despised of society, the least likely to access their full citizenship rights, and, therefore, those critically attuned to the contradictory national logics exposed by Black performance, which, Batiste argues, “shows African Americans coming to terms with a nation that had both betrayed them and from its foundational creed continually held out the glimmer of a promise of inclusion.” Brutus Jones modeled this condition, perhaps most especially in the fit of madness into which he descends at the film’s end that is catalyzed both by his lifetime of dispossession and his struggle to achieve what he was told could be his.

Disappearing Black citizens into prisons

Though ending with a cautionary note for Black men to not aspire too far above their given social station, the narrative of The Emperor Jones was, like so much of Robeson’s early film portrayals, offset by the life lived by its star. By the time of the film’s viewing at Marion the story of Paul’s life had been told with a clarity that undoubtedly brought nuance to this portrayal and invited further consideration of his unique role in a nation that was, at this very moment, escalating the disappearance of its Black citizens into carceral dungeons. Over the last few months of 1977, Brown-El used his personal interest in and research of Robeson to launch efforts to advance the musician’s name as well as other struggles for social justice.

The Emperor Jones, starring Paul Robeson

As a part of Paul Robeson Month, the BCS developed a “Black Awareness Quiz.” Composed of eight questions in multiple-choice style, it asked the reader to answer, for example, “Which noted American became a target of McCarthyism?” and “Which man was honored with the Spingarn Medal, awarded annually for the highest achievement of an American Negro?” The answer to each question was, of course, Paul Robeson, making for a game that was, by question three or four, very predictable but successful nonetheless in its effort to increase knowledge of the month’s namesake. This quick snapshot of both his persecution and his victories began to develop a shared investment in Robeson’s preservation and protection amongst the BCS and their audiences.

Brown-El took advantage of the critical mass that he created through his programming and curatorial work by using it to join in the outrage over the Philip Dean Hayes play Paul Robeson, which premiered in September 1977. Organizing against the play was widespread yet its reach into a federal prison opens up an underdeveloped and undisclosed avenue for solidarity. In the December “petition in support of the actions of the Washington, D.C. Committee to End the Crimes Against Paul Robeson (from Marion),” more than twenty signatories announced their alliance with the celebrities and intellectuals, including Paul Robeson Jr. and writer James Baldwin, who organized the national boycott of the play. The Marion signatories wrote,

This petition is addressed to all people who are concerned with the deplorable assault, “the pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson” by the farcical play entitled “Paul Robeson” which pretends to depict the life of this heroic giant as it really was. In essence, this unwholesome manure of a play, actually reduces Mount Kilmanjaro [sic] (Paul Robeson) to an insignificant molehill. We, the petitioners, protest.

This is a fantastic document that is not simply additive to the international campaign against the play but revelatory in its own right. Beyond this opening, it goes on to paraphrase Lenin and expose the play as “bourgeois propaganda”, used in service of the long historical practice of making Black revolutionaries small. From these insights and reading practices, we know that these men are dynamically and proactively engaged with events beyond the penitentiary—not simply large-scale national or international events but those that intimately impact the communities in which they continue to love and labour. We know that even though they’ve not seen the play, they’ve read and heard enough about it to have an opinion on its failures and to know that they are joining a collective with the power to adjust current conditions. We know that these men, “the petitioners,” are self-possessed enough to protest and they do it from the prison in the name of Paul Robeson.

In his letter of appreciation to Paul Robeson, Jr., Brown-El outlines his labours for the elder Robeson, including the petition, the film screening, and an additional event on December 1, which he planned to repeat in February 1978. Paul was quickly becoming a recurring presence at Marion—a member of their community and one that they would vigorously defend. Brown-El commits to Paul, Jr. that, “I shall propagate the Great Paul Robeson whenever, however, and wherever I can as there was none greater, there is none greater and there shall be none greater than he…”

The persistence of Robeson’s attendance and influence was made possible not only by the gravity and significance of his labours during his lifetime but also due to the impressions that they would make, even if temporary, at places like Marion Penitentiary. He remained with those vulnerable men and remains with us still, singing and charting new forms of possibility and escape.

Shana L. Redmond is the author of Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson (Duke UP, January 2020) and Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora (NYU Press, 2014).