Tracing racial trauma through Philadelphia sports and cultural production in the four decades after King's assassination
Black American Trauma, Memory, and Culture after King
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Michael Awkward was a guest on "WURD" (900 AM, Philadelphia), 11 December 2013.
Michael Awkward’s Philadelphia Freedoms captures the disputes over the meanings of racial politics and black identity during the post-King era in the City of Brotherly Love. Looking closely at four cultural moments, he shows how racial trauma and his native city’s history have been entwined. Awkward introduces each of these moments with poignant personal memories of the decade in focus, chronicling the representation of African American freedom and oppression from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Philadelphia Freedoms explores NBA players’ psychic pain during a playoff game the day after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination; themes of fatherhood and black masculinity in the soul music produced by Philadelphia International Records; class conflict in Andrea Lee’s novel Sarah Phillips; and the theme of racial healing in Oprah Winfrey’s 1997 film, Beloved.
Awkward closes his examination of racial trauma and black identity with a discussion of candidate Barack Obama’s speech on race at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center, pointing to the conflict between the nation’s ideals and the racial animus that persists even into the second term of America’s first black president.
“Philadelphia Freedoms is one of the most interesting studies of race and culture I have seen. Awkward’s personal openings to each chapter add a layer of interest and perspective that we seldom find in critical studies. His approach also provides a concrete example of the workings of trauma. I doubt that the author is ever going to be offered the key to the city, but I suspect he’s OK with that. In fact the strong undertone of anger and frustration is what gives the book its energy.”
“In Philadelphia Freedoms Michael Awkward deftly turns autobiographical reflection to the service of sociocultural critique. Seeing his hometown as a crucible for the collective trauma that distinguishes African-American subjectivity, Awkward reviews key moments in the restaging of that trauma during the last four decades of the twentieth century. In the process, he demonstrates how Du Boisian double consciousness is continually adapted in the post-Civil Rights-era United States, and suggests modes for negotiating the challenge of African-American citizenship in the new millennium.”
"[A] searing book that captures all of the turbulent civil rights struggles that took place in the City of Brotherly Love, from the ‘60s to the ‘90s.... Awkward dives right in. He brilliantly juxtaposes Philadelphia’s mythic image as the city where American democracy was born with the real life, bitter struggles of African-Americans and their quest to obtain those democratic rights guaranteed by the Constitution signed here two centuries ago—and still being sought today."
"From its captivating personal narrative of rootedness in the 'city of brotherly love and sisterly affection,' Awkward's self-referential, scholarly treatment presages the rich dynamics constituting the intersections of blackness, race, and 'traumatized black subjectivity' he explores. A model for interdisciplinary scholarship, Philadelphia Freedoms offers a much needed examination of 'commemoration, grief, and riot preventions' across myriad venues: from the experiences of athletes like Chet Walker and performers like James Brown to cultural production, such as music and literature, that challenge black racial oppression, stereotypes of black dysfunction, and black racial trauma in the wake of King's death. Coming full circle, Awkward concludes with Barack Obama, often characterized as the manifestation of 'King's dream,' addressing the particularities of race in America and Philadelphia in efforts to create 'a more perfect union.' Summing Up: Recommended."
Michael Awkward, Gayl A. Jones Professor of Afro-American Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan, is the author, most recently, of Burying Don Imus: Anatomy of a Scapegoat and Soul Covers: Rhythm and Blues Remakes and the Struggle for Artistic Identity.