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May 12, 2009

straight out of Dorchester

I was at U-Mass Boston today, watching videos produced by students in the Asian-American Studies Program. The videos were autobiographical and effectively raw: stories of child abuse, drug addiction, bullying. The students presented their work as a political act. They had made media instead of consuming it, thereby telling their own stories their own way.

I agree: although the personal doesn't exhaust the political, to present yourself publicly is an important aspect of politics. As Hannah Arendt argued, to inhabit an identity fully and to have full individuality requires being able to display it for others in a public space--something that mass media culture frustrates. "In acting and speaking, men [and of course also women] show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world."

The students whose videos I watched were self-conscious about defying ethnic and gender stereotypes, but one could say more generally that whenever human beings tell their personal stories--even briefly and simply--a challengingly complex reality emerges. I will give just one example of the complexity I learned about today. Several of the videos were made by Vietnamese-American men from the Boston area. They spoke in, I would say, a pervasive and credible version of an African-American urban youth dialect. They used the n-word to describe one another and said things like, "we all be gangbanging." Vocabulary could be borrowed superficially or clumsily, but I noted subtler influences. For example, one young man was describing a fight that had led to a fatal shooting. On camera, he relived his own efforts to stop the violence. As he said, "Yo, calm down," in a deep, serious voice, he partly raised one hand, palm outward; his eyebrows rose; and his eyes locked onto the viewer in a way that reminded me profoundly of an African-American man in a similar situation. But the murdered teenager was given a proper Vietnamese burial back in his birth country. Out of such mixtures and borrowings, parodies and homages, we make meaning, identity, and community.

May 12, 2009 4:02 PM | category: none


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