Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. He is the author of the novel White Boy.

Posts By This Author

Paying to Play

by Danny Duncan Collum 11-06-2014
Our culture has managed to turn children's sports into an expensive "gated community" for the elite.

AS LINUS ONCE pointed out, Charlie Brown could turn a wonderful thing like Christmas into a problem.

Well, America’s post-industrial economy, in which the children of middle-class families frantically compete for slices of a shrinking pie, has done Charlie Brown one better: Our culture has managed to turn children’s sports into a problem. More and more, the fun and games of bygone days are being displaced by a network of pay-to-play competitive club sports organizations—gated communities of the youth sports world that are marketed to middle-class parents as the only route to coveted college athletic scholarships.

Two sets of statistics tell the story. As of 2010, according to the Columbus Dispatch, youth sports organizations took in at least $5 billion per year. In addition, according to a 2013 National Association of Sports Commissions study reported in the Dallas Morning News, the travel industry associated with youth sports is worth another $7 billion a year. And all that money is being spent on fewer kids. According to the Wall Street Journal, participation of kids age 6 to 17 in the most popular U.S. team sports fell by about 4 percent between 2008 and 2012 while the population of 6-to-17-year-olds fell by only 0.6 percent.

Competitive youth sports is becoming an elite phenomenon. Kids whose families can afford it spend the year migrating from tournaments to training camps. Meanwhile, the majority of kids just give up and stay home to play video games.

The Christ of Compton

by Danny Duncan Collum 10-07-2014
Jesus appears on Adult Swim, as he did in Palestine, in a manner both obscure and mysterious.

JESUS RETURNED this past August. Or at least a new depiction of him appeared on late-night cable television, in the comedy Black Jesus, created by Aaron McGruder (of The Boondocks). There was no rapture, and no subsequent tribulation, beyond what passes for normal these days. Instead Jesus appeared, as he did in Palestine, in a manner both obscure and mysterious. And, again, his incarnation became a scandal among some of the powerful and pious.

In Black Jesus, on the Adult Swim network, the second person of the Trinity turns up one day on the streets of Compton, a very poor and heavily African-American community in southern Los Angeles County. Played by a tall and beefy Gerald “Slink” Johnson, Jesus walks the streets in his first century robe and sandals, but with his hair in a Tina Turner perm. Aside from the eccentric get-up, this Jesus fits right into his surroundings. He has no cash, and no place to lay his head. But that goes for plenty of Comptonites. He enjoys malt liquor and marijuana, just as much as he did good wine back in the day at Cana. He’s still preaching and practicing unconditional love, forgiveness, nonviolence, and service to all, but his street talk averages about 1.5 bleeps per sentence.

There’s plenty that’s problematic about Slink Johnson’s character. For one thing, I can’t imagine the Jesus I know using the disrespectful canine term for women so freely or being quite so nonjudgmental about the marijuana trade. But neither does this depiction approach “blasphemy,” which is what the American Family Association called it. The Catholic League, which often leads the charge against perceived offenses to the faith, got it about right when it said, “The Jesus character in this show is a mixed bag: He is irreverent and can be downright crude, but he also has many redeeming qualities.”

A Teachable Moment

by Danny Duncan Collum 08-05-2014
Maybe young black men with transformed intellects isn't what the educational-industrial complex wants.

(Pimnana_01 / Shutterstock)

IN 1961, President Eisenhower warned us about the threat to democracy posed by what he dubbed the military-industrial complex. Today we need an Eisenhower to sound the alarm about another threat to our capacity for self-rule: the educational-industrial complex.

The military-industrial complex gained power because it promised to protect Americans from the spectral threat of Soviet domination. The educational-industrial complex has arisen in response to the fear of economic domination by better-educated populations. But the policies it promotes could leave our population increasingly unable to think for itself or counter the saturating influence of propaganda—whether commercial or political.

What I mean by the educational-industrial complex is that vast network of companies and institutions with a vested interest in education policy: the testing companies, textbook publishers, software developers, technology peddlers, “for-profit” schools, and the armies of high-powered “consultants” that circle U.S. schools like vultures picking the last dollars from the emaciated bones of their budgets. All of these players push an agenda of standardized testing and skills-based curricula that is crowding out both content knowledge (outside of science and math) and the slow, labor-intensive process of reading and discussion that produces the capacity for critical thinking. In the end, we’ll have a deeply ignorant and complacent people who will do as they’re told and buy what they’re sold.

I see this narrowing of educational horizons even in my little corner of the higher education world. At our small state university, faculty members are regularly subjected to lengthy presentations from hired consultants deployed to update our pedagogy—or at least our ed-speak jargon. For instance, last year all teaching faculty had to submit measurable “Student Learning Outcomes,” unfortunately abbreviated “SLO,” for every course we teach. When most of our “outcomes” were deemed “unmeasurable,” a SLO consultant was loosed upon us. From his presentation I learned that an “outcome” was really the same thing that, a decade ago, another consultant called learning “objectives.” In fact, in the middle, our SLO guy started using the two terms interchangeably, leading me to suspect that he had simply changed the jargon in an old presentation and missed a few spots when he did.

Life, Liberty, and Net Neutrality

by Danny Duncan Collum 07-08-2014
Seven words the FCC needs to hear this summer

(maradonna 8888 / Shutterstock)

THE CONTROVERSY over net neutrality has come back to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) where it began, and the commissioners need to hear, immediately, one simple message from ordinary citizens: “Reclassify broadband internet as a telecommunications service.”

You don’t really even need to know what those seven words mean. Just say them—by phone, email, fax, or carrier pigeon—until the commissioners get the idea.

That imperative sentence is aimed at preventing a policy shift that could turn our information superhighway into a fast, expensive toll road for the wealthy and force ordinary citizens onto a two-lane frontage road, with lots of traffic lights.

Net neutrality, as you may recall, is the principle that internet service providers—the companies that own the cable or the wireless frequencies that bring the internet to your device—should treat all digital content the same. Comcast shouldn’t block Amazon Prime to force you into its own video-on-demand service, and Verizon shouldn’t let Netflix pay more to get higher download speeds than its competitors. As a corollary, this means that independent filmmakers and video journalists have the same access to the online audience that the corporate big boys have.

The Future Isn't What It Used To Be

by Danny Duncan Collum 06-03-2014
"See," we tell ourselves, "we were so good once. How bad could we really be?"

IN WALT DISNEY’S Tomorrowland, you still have to push the faucet to get water to wash your hands. I know this because I stood waving my soapy hands at the men’s room spigot for about 15 seconds, expecting water to magically appear, as it so often does these days. Finally the guy next to me said, “You have to push it.”

Still recovering from this irony, I left the men’s room and noticed, along the wall outside, a deserted bank of AT&T pay phones. The future, it turns out, just isn’t what it used to be, but then, at Disneyland, neither is the past.

It was a perfect blue, warm, sunny day in mid-April, Wednesday of Holy Week in fact, when I joined the cosmopolitan herd trekking from the Pinocchio parking lot to the gates of Disneyland—the original one, in California. But unlike the other middle-aged people there, I went unencumbered by children, and I didn’t pay $92 to enter the kingdom of Mickey. My trip was a corporate junket related to my higher-ed day job. I was responsible for three college students, but they had their per diem and didn’t need me, so I was free to wander, observe, and refuse to stand in those mile-long lines for the famous rides.

My first stop was on the faux turn-of-the-last-century Main Street, at “Market House.” It looks like an old-time general store, with wide-plank hardwood floors and rough lumber pillars. But closer inspection reveals a Starbucks in disguise: the same pastries, sandwiches, and drinks as at any Starbucks the world over. But the ultimate Disney touch was the small army of young Latina baristas behind the counter in floor-length, puffy-sleeved dresses straight out of Little House on the Prairie.

A Noah State of Mind

by Danny Duncan Collum 05-09-2014
The problem is not with the ark, but with the ark mentality it represents.

(photostockam / Shutterstock)

AS THIS IS written, the big, fat Hollywood blockbuster Noah is opening amid condemnation from some Muslims and evangelical Christians and praise from most film critics.

Today, any product that touches the Bible is bound to be perceived as another entry in the culture wars. But that doesn’t seem to be what the producers and filmmakers had in mind with Noah. After all, it’s time-tested public domain material that presents great opportunities for computer-generated imagery (CGI) special effects. Paramount, the studio that put up the $125 million production cost, mostly wanted to peel off a slice of the Christian audience that flocked to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the History Channel’s Bible series.

But Noah was a culture war surrogate long before Russell Crowe donned his biblical robes. That’s because the creationist organization Answers in Genesis (AiG), which runs an anti-evolution Creation Museum in northern Kentucky, has for the past few years been trying to raise money to build a theme park anchored by a Bible-sized replica of Noah’s Ark. The Creation Museum is famous for such attractions as exhibits that depict humans and dinosaurs as neighbors. You may have heard it described as the museum for people who think The Flintstones was reality TV.

It’s a big job rebuilding Noah’s ark. The makers of the movie Noah only built to about a third of the biblical dimensions and used CGI for the rest. The price tag for the one planned in Kentucky is about $73 million. Early on, the project got a surprising boost from Kentucky’s governor, Democrat Steve Beshear. You may have seen Beshear on TV recently hyping Kentucky’s rollout of the Affordable Care Act. But before that, in 2010, Beshear came in for rounds of derision when he announced that our state would give $37 million in tax breaks to the ark attraction, as an economic development measure. When—or if—completed, the park is supposed to create 900 jobs and bring $250 million into Kentucky in its first five years.

Sweet Soul Paradox

by Danny Duncan Collum 04-03-2014
The glory of the FAME studio had its roots in the deep shame of rural Southern poverty.

FAME studio mic

ON THE 2001 album Southern Rock Opera, over a thumping four-by-four beat and three roaring guitars, Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson Hood sang a song about “the duality of the Southern thing,” which he identified as equal parts “glory” and “shame.”

That pretty much sums up the paradox of a place like Hood’s native Alabama, where they celebrate the birthdays of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee on the same day. But up in the northwest corner of Alabama there stands a monument to the South’s unalloyed glory—the FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals.

Beginning in the late 1950s, when segregation was still the law throughout the former Confederacy, at FAME black and white Southerners worked as partners, side by side, to make the sweet soul music that would help change the world. Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Mustang Sally”—they were all recorded in Muscle Shoals within a two-year period in the mid-1960s.

And most of the musicians on all those deeply funky recordings were white Alabamans. The bass player, David Hood, was the father of the Truckers’ Patterson Hood.

That’s the story told in Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s film Muscle Shoals, premiering on the PBS series “Independent Lens” on April 21. The film features FAME founder Rick Hall, the FAME rhythm section of Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, and Hood (the boys Lynyrd Skynyrd dubbed “The Swampers”), and some of the artists who came to work with them—Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and others. Musicians of more recent vintage testify to the abiding influence of the Muscle Shoals sound—such as Bono, Alicia Keys, and John Paul White, a local boy who found fame with The Civil Wars. And it’s all shot against the backdrop of the Muscle Shoals area’s wooded hills, lowland cotton fields, and, most of all, the magnificent Tennessee River upon which the life of the region still depends.

Singing in Pete Seeger's Choir

by Danny Duncan Collum 03-06-2014
He didn't just sing for the audience. He got them to sing for themselves.

Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

WHEN I MOVED out of my Sojourners magazine office in 1988, I took with me two signed review copies of books. One was Roll the Union On: A Pictorial History of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. It was inscribed to me personally by H.L. Mitchell, a founder of the STFU, so I felt entitled to keep it.

The other book bore no inscription, just a simple black ink signature above the Simon & Schuster logo. It was called Carry It On! A History in Song and Picture of America’s Working Men and Women, and the co-author who signed it was Pete Seeger. I’m looking at that signature now, as I write this on the day Seeger died.

I told myself that I kept that book because I thought it might come in handy. After all, it had 11 translations of “L’Internationale” and all the words to “Solidarity Forever.” But really I kept it for the signature. I liked the idea of having something that I knew had come from the hand of someone who had ridden the rails with Woody Guthrie. Seeger was our living connection to the culture of the 1930s when, for a moment, radical dreams about a country owned and operated by its ordinary citizens seemed almost ready for prime time.

Of course, that moment passed, and those dreams were shattered by the Red Scare and the Cold War that followed. But Seeger came out on the other side with his integrity and ideals intact. Despite being honored by the last two Democratic presidents, he never renounced his radical vision of what America could be. Seeger left the Communist Party in the early 1950s and frankly acknowledged that he should have done so sooner, but he never stopped calling himself a “small c” communist. In 1994, he told The Washington Post, “Our ancestors were all socialists: You killed a deer and maybe you got the best cut, but you wouldn’t let it rot, you shared it.” Still, he was a pragmatic radical, who added that socialists should recognize that “every society has a post office and none of them is efficient. No post office anywhere invented Federal Express.”

WHEN I MOVED out of my Sojourners magazine office in 1988, I took with me two signed review copies of books. One was Roll the Union On: A Pictorial History of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. It was inscribed to me personally by H.L. Mitchell, a founder of the STFU, so I felt entitled to keep it.

The other book bore no inscription, just a simple black ink signature above the Simon & Schuster logo. It was called Carry It On! A History in Song and Picture of America’s Working Men and Women, and the co-author who signed it was Pete Seeger. I’m looking at that signature now, as I write this on the day Seeger died.

I told myself that I kept that book because I thought it might come in handy. After all, it had 11 translations of “L’Internationale” and all the words to “Solidarity Forever.” But really I kept it for the signature. I liked the idea of having something that I knew had come from the hand of someone who had ridden the rails with Woody Guthrie. Seeger was our living connection to the culture of the 1930s when, for a moment, radical dreams about a country owned and operated by its ordinary citizens seemed almost ready for prime time.

Of course, that moment passed, and those dreams were shattered by the Red Scare and the Cold War that followed. But Seeger came out on the other side with his integrity and ideals intact. Despite being honored by the last two Democratic presidents, he never renounced his radical vision of what America could be. Seeger left the Communist Party in the early 1950s and frankly acknowledged that he should have done so sooner, but he never stopped calling himself a “small c” communist. In 1994, he told The Washington Post, “Our ancestors were all socialists: You killed a deer and maybe you got the best cut, but you wouldn’t let it rot, you shared it.” Still, he was a pragmatic radical, who added that socialists should recognize that “every society has a post office and none of them is efficient. No post office anywhere invented Federal Express.”

A Resurgence of the Real?

by Danny Duncan Collum 02-04-2014
The e-book, the next big thing that was supposed to kill off the local bookstore, may have peaked.

(merthuroglu / Shutterstock)

I’VE BEEN thinking a lot lately about technological obsolescence. This isn’t because I’m a classroom teacher and professional writer—two occupations widely expected to meet the fate of John Henry. My musings have mainly been prompted by the hours I just spent weeding through my family’s extensive collection of cassette tapes. From 1992 to about 2005, my wife, Polly, and I made a sizeable investment in that doomed medium, mostly in the form of children’s audiobooks and home-school educational programs that our kids (now ages 14 to 21) have outgrown. We still have three functioning cassette players in our house, but then we still have a 22-year-old tube television, too. I don’t expect that anyone who has young children today would be willing to take on our collection of cassettes. Even Goodwill may refuse them.

Some things, like the cassette tape, deserve to become obsolete. They were always an inferior product. But, all the logic of the market economy to the contrary, newer is not always, or even usually, better.

That’s why it’s been heartening to witness, in the past year or so, the beginning of a small backlash against our forced march toward a future that is all-digital, all the time. The first sign of a revolt was the return of the vinyl record. Of course, I held on to my vinyl through all the transitions of the past 30 years, and we’ve always had a functioning turntable in the house. But now it is my 21-year-old son who actually buys vinyl. Of course, my son also has an iPod and does most of his listening through headphones, like the rest of his peers. But he and thousands of other young music buffs have learned that vinyl delivers a better sound than any of the digital formats currently on the consumer market.

An Ever-Flowing Stream

by Danny Duncan Collum 01-05-2014
At peak usage, Netflix alone now accounts for one-third of all internet traffic in the U.S.

A scene from "Ballast," one of many independent films available to a larger audience because of internet sites such as Fandor. Image courtesy of Andy Zito

2013 WAS ANOTHER year when the future arrived. We’ve been having a lot of those lately. First there was 2010. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, that year more Americans got their news online than from reading a newspaper. Next, 2011 was the year when the internet started replacing not just the local bookstore, but books themselves. That’s when Amazon made more money from e-books than from real ones. The same thing happened in 2012, when revenue from music downloads surpassed that from the sale of recorded discs.

The newest future dawned last year when the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences officially recognized that the internet was replacing TV. They didn’t say that, of course. The Academy just said that online streaming series, such as Netflix’s House of Cards andArrested Development, were eligible for Emmy Awards. For a little perspective here, the Emmys were once only for broadcast TV—the stuff you can get from a roof antenna. Cable productions became eligible in 1988, and last year not a single broadcast production was even nominated for the best drama award.

In the first year of internet eligibility, David Fincher won the best director Emmy for House of Cards. In case anyone still thinks that web TV is for has-beens and wannabes, in 2011 Fincher was nominated for the best director Oscar for The Social Network. Last fall, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau produced a series (Alpha House) for streaming on Amazon. For the record, Trudeau’s last television venture was Lucas Tanner for HBO, in 1988.

Net Neutrality: The Final Battle?

by Danny Duncan Collum 12-12-2013
Will corporations and the courts turn our free and untidy marketplace of ideas into yet another exclusive gated community?

(Denis Rozhnovsky / Shutterstock)

FOR SEVERAL years now, a debate has raged over the issue of “net neutrality,” pitting media reformers, digital libertarians, and “content” companies such as Amazon and Netflix against old-school telecommunication giants such as AT&T and Comcast, with the Federal Communications Commission serving as an erratic referee.

Sometime early this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia may settle the question when it decides the case of Verizon vs. the FCC. If the court decides in favor of Verizon, big telecom companies will have won the right to decide what digital content we can receive, especially when it comes to video and other bandwidth-intense media.

Simply put, the issue in the Verizon case is whether broadband internet will follow the “common carrier” precedent applied to telephone lines and the electricity grid or the model of cable TV. The common carrier principle guarantees equal access to necessary public utilities. Applied to the internet, this has meant that service providers simply supply the fiber-optic cable or wireless spectrum, give equal access to all content providers, and charge the final recipient of the data (you and me) a fee that covers the cost of maintaining an adequate network.

In the cable TV business model, the provider controls the network of fiber optic cable and the content that goes over it. The cable company decides which channels are included in the basic package, which (like HBO) are purchased separately, and which will be unavailable at any price. If you want Al Jazeera instead of Fox News, too bad—it’s a take it or leave it package.

A Benevolent Baron

by Danny Duncan Collum 11-05-2013
The Post's credible voice for corporate centrism is a large part of what Bezos wants for his $250 million.

“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”

THE QUOTE IS from Charles Foster Kane, the character based on William Randolph Hearst in Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane. But it could have been Amazon kingpin Jeff Bezos this August when he bought The Washington Post. What can you get for the man who has everything? Maybe he’d like a newspaper to play with, preferably one with global political clout.

Unlike Charles Foster Kane or Rupert Murdoch, Bezos seems disinclined to monkey with the content of the Post’s coverage. His business interests may require certain government policy directions—i.e. free trade and no unions—but on those questions the Post is already with him. They differ on net neutrality (the concept that providers of internet access should not be able to discriminate against or give preference to specific internet service or content providers), so that will be one to watch. But Bezos comes to the Post saying he essentially agrees with the paper’s politics. In fact the Post’s reputation as a credible voice for corporate centrism seems to be a large part of what Bezos wants for his $250 million.

This may explain why Bezos, a titan of the rising digital world, would weigh himself down with an ancient “legacy” institution. It’s an old American story. When you get rich enough (Bezos’ fortune is estimated at $27 billion), you don’t want more money, you want power and respect. The same process played out with the robber barons in the last century. It’s just that today the evolution happens much faster. It took three generations for the Rockefellers to go from oil tycoons to philanthropists and politicians; contemporary barons such as Bezos and Bill Gates have made the switch within a couple of decades.

Learning from the Unspeakable

by Danny Duncan Collum 10-02-2013
JFK's assassination provides us with lessons about the dangers of secret wars and unaccountable power.

Lone gunman? President and Jacqueline Kennedy minutes before the assassination.

NOVEMBER MARKS the 50th anniversary of the assassination of our 35th president, an event that defined the life of the baby-boomers—a generation that, by sheer force of numbers, still sucks up most of the oxygen in U.S. culture. There are new books, reissued books, documentaries, made-for-TV movies, and a new Hollywood production, Parkland, starring that Everyman of the baby boom, Tom Hanks. But, anniversary hoopla aside, the JFK assassination and its aftermath can also provide us with some very timely lessons about the dangers that come with secret wars and unaccountable power.

Fifty-nine percent of Americans don’t believe the official story that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed President John F. Kennedy, and this time the majority is right. The available evidence strongly suggests that the president was the victim of a murder plot that involved anti-Castro Cubans, enraged by his failure to back them up during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and their allies in organized crime who had been heavily invested in pre-Castro Havana. That was the conclusion of the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978, which also found physical evidence of another shooter at the crime scene.

Of course, the armed anti-Castro forces in Florida were a bought-and-paid-for creation of our CIA, and the CIA was also working with organized crime figures in various plots to assassinate Castro. So it’s no great leap to suspect some complicity in Kennedy’s assassination by CIA employees. Some reasonable people, including peace activist and theologian James W. Douglass in his book JFK and the Unspeakable, have gone further, claiming that the Kennedy assassination was the result of a policy decision, taken at the very highest levels of the national security state, aimed at heading off JFK’s plans to pull out of Vietnam and end the Cold War. This theory relies heavily on National Security Action Memorandum 263, which laid out plans to begin withdrawing troops from Vietnam, and journalist Norman Cousins’ account of back channel diplomacy in the book, The Improbable Triumvirate: John F. Kennedy, Pope John, Nikita Khrushchev.

The Passing of a Prophet

by Danny Duncan Collum 08-02-2013
"We're all bastards," Will Campbell wrote, 'but God loves us anyway."

Civil rights activist and author Will Campbell, whose eccentricities and affectations had a profoundly serious purpose.

IN HIS EULOGY at Baptist pastor, civil rights activist, and author Will D. Campbell’s memorial service in late June, Campbell’s close friend, journalist John Egerton, recalled their first meeting. Campbell was wearing the broad-brimmed black hat that became his signature, with jeans and cowboy boots. At the time, Egerton noted, Campbell was in the middle of “a costume change” from the tweed jacket, clerical collar, and calabash pipe he had affected as a young, Yale-educated liberal minister.

Campbell was a notoriously theatrical figure, as famous for his hats and walking sticks as for his theological pronouncements. In fact, in the 1980s Campbell became a cartoon character in the guise of Rev. Will B. Dunn in the late Doug Marlette’s “Kudzu.” Campbell also dramatized his own life in Brother to a Dragonfly, his National Book Award-nominated 1977 memoir, and in a 1986 sequel, Forty Acres and a Goat.

Another favorite prop in the Will Campbell show was the acoustic guitar he would strum while singing his own country compositions and old favorites like “Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer.” Campbell, who was based in Nashville from 1957 on, also became a sort of chaplain to the “outlaw” element in that city’s country music industry. He traveled on Waylon Jennings’ tour bus, and Jennings’ widow, country star Jessi Colter, sang at Campbell’s memorial.

Too Happy?

by Danny Duncan Collum 07-01-2013
Bobby McFerrin's "don't worry" optimism sets up some serious cognitive dissonance with the spirituals.

IN THE PAST 150 years, the songs historically known as “Negro spirituals” have worn many costumes. They emerged, of course, from the Deep South during the days of slavery, when songs such as “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” or “Wade in the Water” were first sung by anonymous psalmists wielding hoes or pulling cotton sacks. Since that time they’ve been dressed in the style of the European art song, sung as grand opera, or even faithfully mimicked by well-meaning white folk singers.

The spirituals entered the mainstream of American culture through the performances of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University in Nashville who, fresh out of slavery themselves, toured the North in the 1870s. In the 1950s and ’60s, the old standards were resurrected, and slightly rewritten, as marching songs for the African-American freedom movement and then echoed across the world as anthems for human rights from South Africa to Northern Ireland to Eastern Europe.

After all that, the spirituals can probably even survive being remade into “smooth jazz,” which is more or less what happens to them on Bobby McFerrin’s new album Spirityouall. Readers of a certain age might remember McFerrin as the guy who, in 1988, conquered the known pop music universe with an airheaded ditty called “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The tune was so infectious that it should have had a warning label from the Centers for Disease Control, but instead it dominated radio, won some Grammys, and, to McFerrin’s eternal horror, was used as theme music by the George H.W. Bush presidential campaign.

Cultivating a Better America

by Danny Duncan Collum 06-05-2013
According to Wendell Berry, all you need to have hope is one good example.

Wendell Berry, photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler

WENDELL BERRY was on stage being interviewed by Bill Moyers when the old Baptist minister (Moyers) asked the unchurched Christian (Berry) about his faith. “The world is maintained every day by the force that created it,” Berry intoned solemnly. In the Old Testament, he noted, “Elihu says to Job, if God gathers his breath, all creatures fail. All creatures live,” Berry emphasized, “by breathing God’s breath, breathing his spirit. It’s all holy—the whole shooting match.”

At 78, Wendell Berry shows no sign of failing, either in his breath or his spirit. But the Kentucky writer-activist-farmer is already enjoying a sort of immortality as the namesake of a degree program in ecological agrarianism at St. Catharine College. In April, that small Catholic institution in Springfield, Ky., hosted a conference titled “From Unsettling to Resettling: What Will It Take to Resettle America?” in honor of the 35th anniversary of Berry’s landmark book, The Unsettling of America. The interview with Moyers was part of the conference program.

Drastically oversimplified, the thesis of The Unsettling of America held that two types of Europeans came to America. Elsewhere, citing his teacher Wallace Stegner, Berry has called them the “boomers” and the “stickers.” The boomers were the unsettlers. They moved into the New World, cut down the trees, extracted the minerals, used up the land, and then moved on in search of new places to despoil. The stickers, however, settled into a place and made it their own. They cooperated with the land and the local resources to make a life and a livelihood that could be sustained over generations. Our problem, Berry contended, is that in America the boomers, backed by the power of money, have for too long set the agenda and won most of the fights.

Love, Race, and History

by Danny Duncan Collum 05-11-2013
Trethewey focuses her keen verbal gifts on the most sensitive nerve in American life.

U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey

WHEN U.S. POET Laureate Natasha Trethewey visited my day job at historically black Kentucky State University, she cleared up a couple of things about the honors and duties of her position. First she noted that, unlike her British counterpart, she does not receive a free cask of wine as part of her payment. But that’s okay, she says, because, unlike laureates of old, she also does not have to compose made-to-order poems to the glory of The State. The State should also be relieved at that, because Trethewey’s poetry, while obsessed with history and written in a plain-spoken and accessible style, also habitually exposes profoundly unsettling truths about us and our past, especially regarding race.

From her first book, Domestic Work, focused on the lives of working-class African Americans in the South, to her most recent, Thrall, which deals with images of interracial relationships from the 17th century to the present, Trethewey has focused her keen verbal gifts on the most sensitive nerve in American life. Trethewey comes by these obsessions naturally. She is the daughter of a white man, Eric Trethewey, himself a poet of some renown, and a black woman, Gwendolyn Turnbough, who was murdered when Trethewey was in college. Trethewey was born and grew up as a mixed-race child on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the late 1960s and ’70s.

Owning the Future

by Danny Duncan Collum 04-04-2013
"It's time to declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture."

IF THEY HAD met, Aaron Swartz and Vernon Bowman probably wouldn't have hit it off. The 26-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y. computer whiz and the 75-year-old Indiana grain farmer might have been from different planets. But they were brothers-in-arms in a historic struggle over the shape of the 21st century economy and culture. Each, in his own way, has challenged the iron, unyielding hegemony of copyright law that increasingly protects permanent, private, for-profit ownership of artistic creations, scholarly research, and the very processes of life itself.

Aaron Swartz won't be around to see the outcome of this struggle.

Swartz was a successful internet innovator who used his wealth and position to promote "free information." In 2008, he wrote a program that was used to liberate thousands of public-domain federal court records from a site that was charging 10 cents per page for their use. More recently he used his access to the M.I.T. computer network to execute a massive robo-download of millions of scholarly articles from the subscription database JSTOR. The idea was to make the scholarship available free.

After he was caught, JSTOR reached a civil settlement with Swartz that included his surrender of the hard drives containing the articles and then treated the case as closed. But federal prosecutors decided to throw the book at Swartz. He was under a felony indictment for computer fraud and facing a possible 35-year prison sentence. Finally, in January, Swartz, who had a history of depression, killed himself. His parents blamed overzealous prosecutors for his death.

Guns, Culture, and Sanity

by Danny Duncan Collum 03-14-2013
Not everything that's fun is a constitutionally protected right.

I DON'T OWN any guns, and I've only fired them at inanimate objects, but I live in the country, so guns are a part of my life.

During deer season, the woods around our place sometimes sound like Baghdad circa 2006. We used to have a close neighbor who regularly fired a gun in his backyard, usually on Sunday afternoons—at what, we're not entirely sure. Our family has a three-legged dog that lost his right rear appendage to a gunshot wound. Our kids in Boy Scouts get gun safety training and rifle and shotgun shooting lessons in a program certified by the National Rifle Association.

So when the gun control debate heats up, as it has since the Sandy Hook School massacre, I come down with a serious case of mixed feelings. I think rural gun lovers are at least partly right when they say that urban gun control advocates look down on them as ignorant primitives. Many city people, and I'd dare say most urban liberals, don't understand the rural culture of hunting and shooting and can't be bothered to expend the moral energy that act of empathy would require. For me, that part of the gun control discussion pushes the same outrage buttons that go off when an economist says people in dying rural communities just need to move, or when someone else suggests eliminating all farm subsidies from the federal budget. Such comments betray the fact that the speakers neither know, nor care, about rural communities and rural culture.

On the other hand, fear of outsiders is also a part of rural culture. Groups like the NRA, and gun manufacturers themselves, have done a pretty good job of exploiting that flaw, to the point that some of my neighbors are convinced that they need assault weapons to defend themselves against some vague, unnamable "them." And my experience of rural life, which has all been in the South, confirms that this can apply doubly or triply to "outsiders" with a different skin color.

Air Wars

by Danny Duncan Collum 02-11-2013
The best evidence against Murdoch is the existence of Fox News.

AS THIS IS written, the Federal Communications Commission is, again, preparing to rule on a revision of its media ownership rules that could, again, allow the few remaining mass media conglomerates to own even more of what are currently competing local news outlets. For one thing, the proposed revision would allow Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation to have its Los Angeles and Chicago TV stations and eat the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune, too.

Five years ago, the Bush administration's FCC commissioners tried this move, but it was routed in a decision by a federal appeals court. But, just in time to quash any illusions that a second Obama administration might be less friendly to corporate power, Julius Genachowski, the Obama-appointed FCC chair, tried, at the end of 2012, to quietly slip in this new set of Murdoch-friendly ownership rules. The only reason it may not have happened already is because he raised the issue at the same time that an FCC report on minority media ownership arrived showing the share of outlets owned by people of color to be only 2.2 percent for commercial full-power television and 6.2 percent for commercial AM radio. This, needless to say, raises questions about the wisdom of further media consolidation.

Over the decades, this column has spilled a lot of ink on the subjects of the FCC, media policy, and, especially, media ownership. I haven't obsessed over these issues because of any love for the details of broadband allocation and other regulatory minutiae. In fact, I struggle to understand some of those matters just well enough to try and explain why they are important. But they are important, mostly because deregulated and monopolistic mass media impinge upon our ability to effectively exercise our God-given free will and participate rationally in the process of self-government.