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Robert Houston Oral History Interview

National Museum of African American History and Culture
The oral history consists of 2016.129.5.1a and 2016.129.5.2a: two versions (unedited, and edited) of a single digital video recording.

132.40872 GB

Robert Houston was interviewed as part of the NMAAHC Donor Oral History Collection. Mr. Houston donated a collection of his photographs to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In this interview, Robert Houston discusses his life and his journey to become a photographer. His story includes references to Gordon Parks and his unconventional methods of getting close enough to take shots of celebrities and entertainers.

Unedited File: Unedited digital file of oral history interview. This file is necessary in case we need to refer to the original recording for any reason and/or want to use a portion of the file that has been edited out.

Edited File: Videographer has minimized or eliminated interruptions, false starts and any unnecessary sounds. An agreed upon slate has also been added with title, date, and logo. Separate files of the same interview have been concatenated. This is the copy that will be made available to the public and/or researchers and uploaded to the website.

Russell Williams II Oral History Interview

National Museum of African American History and Culture
The oral history consists of 2016.129.13.1a and 2016.129.13.2a: two versions (unedited, and edited) of a single digital video recording.

228.30216 GB

Russell Williams was interviewed as part of the NMAAHC Donor Oral History Collection. Mr. Williams donated a collection of artifacts and photographs representing his pioneering Hollywood career, including both of his Academy Awards, his two Emmy Awards, and audio equipment he used to record dialogue on the set of various films to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In this oral history Russell Williams discusses his childhood in Washington, DC and his journey to becoming a successful Hollywood sound engineer. He talks about the challenges that face African Americans in the film industry. He also gives vivid descriptions of what it was like to work on the sets of "Glory" and "Dances with Wolves".

Unedited File: Unedited digital file of oral history interview. This file is necessary in case we need to refer to the original recording for any reason and/or want to use a portion of the file that has been edited out.

Edited File: Videographer has minimized or eliminated interruptions, false starts and any unnecessary sounds. An agreed upon slate has also been added with title, date, and logo. Separate files of the same interview have been concatenated. This is the copy that will be made available to the public and/or researchers and uploaded to the website.

Something to Build On

National Museum of African American History and Culture
16mm color film directed by St. Clair Bourne and produced his production company, Chamba Productions, for the College Entrance Examination Board. The film provides various perspectives on the college experience and presents resources to encourage minority youth to attend college.

Consists of: 16mm Film (a).

2012.79.1.54.1a: 16mm film. Film begins with an introduction animated segment of a young black man walking down a city sidewalk and then entering a doorway with the word College written over it. A musical soundtrack accompanies the animation. He walks down the hallway past doors and a trophy case while the voiceover narration begins. The narration focuses on thinking about how to get started on applying for college. The animation sequence depicts the prospective student collecting paperwork and talking to the appropriate people to take to the door with a college sign next to it. The animated introduction ends and the film transitions to live action and the title of the film. A man runs out of a storefront across a parking lot to his car. The next scene shows a professor leading a class discussion in a classroom. Then there is an exterior shot of Nairobi College and the man from earlier in the film running in the front door. The college is located in a small house. The narrator introduces the college and the man joins the classroom conversation. The narrator introduces Nate Perry, the man that has been in the film, and he talks about enrolling in Nairobi College. The narrator explains that the purpose of the college is to teach leaders for non-white communities and break down the separation of the college and the community by holding classes in different locations. The next scene shows the Nairobi College Cultural Center and students playing music and dancing. The next subject of the film is California State College (California State University) in Los Angeles. The narrator discusses the importance of the college for the Mexican American community. There is a shot of the front door of College Recruitment for Educational Opportunity (CREO). The door also has a sign for Community Relations for Educational Opportunity (also CREO). People are shown walking into the office and talking to someone in the office and he answers questions about gaining admission to college. A man is shown talking outside and a group discussion ensues about confronting the power structure. An inside classroom discussion also shows students talking about similar problems as those in the outside discussion. The next scene shows New York City and the narrator begins talking about City College of New York in Harlem and the importance of providing both financial assistance as well as special counseling and tutoring. However, the narrator points out that black and Puerto Rican students demanded an open admissions policy. A group of students is shown discussing education issues and going back to the community to work and raise awareness. The narrator introduces Megan McLaughlin, and she describes through a voiceover narration the Search for Elevation, Education, and Knowledge (SEEK) Program. She is shown walking on sidewalks during the voiceover narration. The next scene features St. Petersburg College, and the narrator discusses attending a junior college before attending a four-year institution. Students share their experiences and how students can benefit from attending a junior college. The smaller classes are beneficial and the opportunity to balance home life with attending college are among those benefits. The scene is filmed inside of a moving car while Don Gekkins, director of the Service Center Program, talks about how the program works. The next scene shows him entering a classroom where children are reciting words displayed on cards held by a tutor from the junior college. Don Gekkins is then shown leaving his house with his two sons and playing with them. Gekkins, in a voiceover narration, describes growing up in a depressed area of St. Petersburg. The next scene shows a college marching band leading a parade down a street. The narrator discusses this parade in the context of a four-year university and the distractions of a four-year university, particularly sports events. The university being discussed appears to be Howard University in Washington, D.C. After footage of cheerleaders and a football game, a football player is interviewed about attending college on a scholarship. After the interview, there is footage of a football practice. The next scene includes an interview with Tom Nelson, a college graduate and ex-professional football player. The next scene shows two men picking up trash on the sidewalk, then some other men performing municipal trash service. There is footage of a college campus, probably Clark University in Atlanta, while the narrator discusses the main reasons for attending college. The next scene shows a woman walking on a sidewalk and into a building while the narrator begins a discussion about financial aid. The woman enters an office and talks to a financial aid officer while the narrator discusses the difference between types of financial aid. The next scene shows a student from Nigeria at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and he discusses studying science to bring back knowledge to Nigeria. The film ends with the narrator presenting a summary of what has been discussed, and there is a montage of images from the entire film.

Studio Setting

National Museum of African Art
Brightly colored impasto oil painting of 3/4 nude male figure emerging from the proper left lower corner of the canvas and reaching with arms outstretched and a cloth blowing behind him toward the upper proper right corner. A drape hangs behind the figure while below him appears to be a white table with an orange colored desert at its center. The background is crowded with more piles of food, including watermelon wedges and bananas, piled atop flowing tablecloths. A female figure stands beside what may be a door in the background, against deep maroon walls.

Tangled Up in Blue

National Museum of African Art
Diptych format etching included in a portfolio of seven prints.

The Adviser Weekly vol. 1 no. 3

National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Adviser Weekly vol. 1 no. 3, featuring an open letter from the United Economic & Commercial League (U. E. & C. League) and a photograph of the league’s president, Dr. Albert Heard. The magazine is printed on two (2) sheets of folded white newsprint with black print and black-and-white photographs. The top fourth of the front cover is the masthead. The masthead is in a white field with the magazine title, date, price, and print run quantity in black text that reads, [THE ADVISER WEEKLY / A News Review Magazine / AUGUST 10, 1934 PRICE FREE 5000 THIS ISSUE]. Below and centered is a box with black text advertising a popularity contest held by the magazine. The text reads, [Who Are the Most Pop- / ular Girls in St. Louis? / $100.00 in cash prizes will / be given to the ten most / popular girls in the Adviser / Weekly’s popularity con- / test. >> See rules and entry / blank on page 4.]. On the left side of the box are the news items featured in this issue and on the right side of the box are the news items featured in every issue. The bottom half of the magazine features [AN OPEN LETTER / From the U. E. & C. League] highlighting the one year anniversary of the league and an interview with the league’s founder and president, Dr. Albert Heard. The magazine has articles related to fashion, sport, health, night life, and business, as well as meal suggestions, recipes, and advertisements for local businesses. This magazine issue is eight (8) pages, including the front and back covers.

The Angolite, November/December 1979

National Museum of African American History and Culture
This November/December 1979 issue of The Angolite has a burgundy colored background cover with white text. A black-and-white photograph below the masthead depicts incarcerated men standing and digging in a waist-deep ditch. Two (2) men on horseback, one armed with a long gun, oversee the workers. Below the photograph is white text reading "IN THIS ISSUE / 'PRISON: The Sexual Jungle' / LOUISIANA STATE PENITENTIARY." The cover story deals with problems of sexual slavery at Angola prison and includes interviews with prisoners who were raped as well as discrimination and violence against homosexual and transgendered prisoners. Other content includes personnel changes of prison administration, articles on new legal changes and legal assistance, a review of the October 1979 Rodeo featuring several event photographs and a story on an inmate who was paralyzed after an injury during a bull riding event, a story about a local vocational school available to prisoners, and information about health care in prison. The text is supplemented with illustrations and photographs throughout the ninety-eight (98) interior pages. Information for subscribing and a mail-in card are included on the final interior page. The back cover has the same burgundy colored background with an illustration at the center of a line of men in shadow with shovel and hoes slung over their shoulders. The magazine is bound with two (2) metal staples.

The Angolite, September/October 1978

National Museum of African American History and Culture
This September/October 1978 issue of The Angolite has a cover with a black-and-white photograph of a man standing outside a small structure in a dirt yard. The photograph is below the masthead, with the text "EXCLUSIVE / 'Conversations With The Dead' / LOUISIANA STATE PRISON" below the photograph. The cover story discusses the clemency and parole process, with interviews from several incarcerated people who have long sentences and will likely die imprisoned. The cover photo is also featured in this story, and picture Franck "Cocky" Moore in front of his shack on the Angola property. Other stories include opinion pieces, detailed updates on recent legislative and administrative changes, and the restructuring of Camp H into a merit-based rehabilitation program. The magazine is bound with two (2) metal staples and has sixty-two (62) interior pages. The final interior page contains information and a mail-in section for subscriptions. The back cover has an illustrated advertisement for the 1978 Rodeo.

The Angolite, Vol. 9, No. 3

National Museum of African American History and Culture
This issue of The Angolite, Vol. 9, No. 3, has a large black-and-white cover photograph behind the black text of the masthead. The photo shows several men at a funeral underneath a barren tree. Grave markers are visible in the foreground and around the men's feet. Black text over the photograph at the bottom reads "Feature: / DYING IN PRISON." The cover story includes information about the prison graveyard and has interviews with some elderly and unwell prisoners. Other articles in the issue deal with information about the pardon system, a committee set up to keep track of those with long-term sentences seeking clemency, a book review, and regular features such as sports coverage and poetry. The final interior page includes subscription information. The back cover has a line drawing of two men in a horse-drawn cart filled with cotton. There are 102 interior pages and the magazine is bound with two (2) metal staples.

The Angolite, Vol. XII, No. 1

National Museum of African American History and Culture
This issue of The Angolite, Vol. XII, No. 1 features a cover illustration in yellow, black, and gray depicting a man wearing a striped jumpsuit and handcuffs standing behind a table with scales, The Tombstone Epitaph newspaper, cards and gambling chips, a bottle of liquor, and a handgun. In the background is a prison guard tower. The feature story concerns Washington Correctional Institute, a nearby prison facility, with interviews by Angolite staff of the inmates and staff at the other prison. One article, "The Pardons Scandal," deals with the pardon scam related to form Angolite editor Billy Sinclair, who was an FBI informant on the case. Others cover personnel changes in the ACLU, the dedication of a wildlife refuge on the prison grounds, and regular features including brief news stories, legal advice, and poetry. The final interior page includes subscription information, with an illustration of a manacled hand reaching out from the water. The back cover has a horizontally-oriented illustration in yellow, black, and gray of a dragon lounging on a pile of gold coins wearing pajamas with a prison number on his jacket, and drinking from a goblet while reading this issue of The Angolite. The magazine has eighty-six (86) interior pages and is bound with two (2) metal staples.

The Black G.I. [Black Journal segment]

National Museum of African American History and Culture
This 16mm color film is an hour-long documentary segment of Episode No. 22 of the NET (National Educational Television) television program, Black Journal; a weekly public television newsmagazine in the late 1960s/early 1970s that examined the many issues pertinent to the black American experience at the time. It was originally broadcast on March 30, 1970, and is believed to have been filmed over the course of 1969. Episode No. 22 of Black Journal was directed by Stan Lathan, while the "Black G.I." segment was directed by Kent Garrett. Executive Produced by William Greaves.

Contains: 16mm Film (a), Original 1,600 foot Film Reel (b), and Original 1,600 foot Film Canister (c).

2012.79.1.51.1a: 16mm film. This film opens with a narration over images of African American men in the history of the US military. The first moving image section shows African American men fighting during World War II. The narrator discusses the irony of African American men fighting for freedom in Europe while not enjoying the same freedoms in the US. There are multiple shots of the Tuskegee Airmen. Eleanor Roosevelt pins (unknown) medal on African American soldier. Next, newsreel footage of Joe Louis arriving at an airbase and greeting black troops. The narrator then talks about the desegregation of the US military during the Korean War and points out the lack of black soldiers in leadership positions. Color footage marks the transition of the narration to coverage of the Vietnam War. Two African American soldiers in civilian clothing with soul power patches can be seen dapping. Series of brief excerpts from interviews of black soldiers play, each stating their position on being black and in the military during the Vietnam War. The narrator reveals the disproportionate percentage of black men who are killed in action versus their white counterparts. There are multiple shots of combat and post-combat footage in Vietnamese rice fields and footage of riverside villages. Two sailors patrol a river and discuss their experience in Vietnam thus far and what they'll do when they get home. They discuss their mission and how to be black while being in the military. A girl group performs at the USO in Saigon. Tanks and amored personnel carriers patrol suspected enemy locations along border with North Vietnam. Sailors on a patrol boat open fire at the river bank and a confederate flag can be seen flying from a flag pole on board. Black sailors discuss cultural challenges of being in the Navy and the lack entertainment geared towards black musical tastes of the time. One sailor talks about being disciplined for getting into an altercation after a white sailor ripped his tape player from the wall for playing soul music. The narrator reveals that an all white court martial found the sailor, Bobby Jenkins, guilty of assault, demoted him and docked his pay. A sailor relays that he and other African Americans met with the Assistant Secretary of Defense for civil rights to discuss their poor treatment and were promised changes by the Assistant Secretary. The sailors talk about how some local Vietnamese have adopted some of the negative perceptions of African Americans, which some black sailors believe they learned from some white members of the military. The sailors discuss how their hands are tied when it comes to standing up for their rights as sailors on a patrol boat dap and salute the camera with black/soul power fists. Air Force fighter pilot, John Bordeaux, discusses his personal experience of not facing the same discrimination expressed by other African American military personnel. Two black career Army officers, Davis and Rogers, discuss the systematic discrimination they've faced; in particular, they recall incidents of being passed over for promotions despite strong credentials. Brigadier General Frederick E. Davison, the first African American combat general, rejects the assertion that an African American who succeeds in the military is an Uncle Tom and discusses the many actions that the Army has taken to ensure equal treatment and opportunities. A cover of "Sittin' on a Dock in the Bay" plays over a montage of black soldiers in the field. A group of black Marines in a mess hall at Camp Hansen, Okinawa discuss the unfair treatment they've experienced, such as being forced to wear a collared shirt with their dashikis and not being allowed to wear their hair in an afro. One marine relates an incident in which they were violently confronted after returning from a USO show that primarily featured soul music. There is a series of shots of shops in Koza "Four Corners", Okinawa geared towards African American soldiers. Another group of soldiers discuss their dissatisfaction with being drafted to fight in Vietnam despite social and economic discrimination at home, and being harassed and targeted as being "troublesome" if they decide to attend country music night at local clubs. L. Howard Bennett, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, discusses how black soldiers complaining about the lack of soul music are expressing grievances beyond simply entertainment selection and dissatisfaction with communcation in the chain of command. He also states his opinion that black soldiers fighting for the US puts them in a better position to demand equal rights at home.

2012.79.1.51.1b: Original 1,600 foot film reel.

2012.79.1.51.1c: Original 1,600 foot film canister. The metal film canister has two sticker labels; each from a different film services company.

The Final Call

National Museum of African American History and Culture
A copy of "The Final Call" from October 10, 2015.

The top center of the newspaper reads [The Final Call] in a bold, black, fancy font. There is a color drawing of a trumpet on the proper right side with lines coming out of it. To the left of the words there are symbols for Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Above the title there is a box with text. It reads ['ALL ROADS LEAD TO WASHINGTON'/An invitation to join the Justice Or Else! Gathering. Oct. 10, 2015/By the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan- Page 20], with a color photo of Louis Farrkhan on the proper right.

Under "The Final Call" three websites are listed. Below the websites it reads [SPECIAL EDITION OCTOBER 10, 2015 U.S. $2.00]. Below that there is a black line with the text [JUSTICEORELSE.COM 10.10.15 JUSTICE...OR ELSE!] in white, with the date in the center in yellow.

Below it there is a collage of photos in color. The photos show groups of people marching and holding signs that include slogans such as "Black Lives Matter" and "Justice for Black, Brown, Red & Poor!", as well as some in Spanish. In the center there is a black and white "Justice...or Else!" logo.

The logo has the shape of the U.S. Capitol building at the top. There is a line drawing of the Capitol in white. Below it there is a white rectangle. Inside it reads [JUSTICE.../OR/ELSE!] in white. There is a line between "Justice" and "Else" and the "Or" is in the center inside of a square. The "!" makes up a part of the rectangle that is around the words.

Below the rectangle it reads [20th ANNIVERSARY/THE MILLION MAN MARCH] in white.

The back of the newspaper features ads for Louis Farrakhan interview DVDs and ads for merchandise from the march.

The Jack of Heart

National Museum of African Art
Etching included in a portfolio of seven prints, with yellow and black as the predominant colors, as well as postage stamps.

The Motown Story: The First Decade

National Museum of African American History and Culture
Blue boxed set of five lps. Box has a large white square on the front, centered with a gold record in the middle. In the center of the record is text [THE/FIRST/DECADE] as well as the logo for the Motown Record Corporation with a large "M" and the name below [MOTOWN]. Above the white square is white text [LIMITED EDITION/THE MOWOWN STORY]. In the upper left corner is some small text [STEREO]. In the upper right corner is additional text [MS 5-726]. Below the white square are two (2) lines of white text [58 golden hits that made Motown history (sic) Live, in person interviews/with the artists that recorded them (sic) Presented, in a five volume set.]. On the PL side of the box lid, is a vertical line of white text [THE MOTOWN STORY/THE FIRST DECADE/VOLUME ONE THROUGH FIVE]. On the box's bottom are five (5) columns of text with the song titles and their performers listed.

Tombstone Blues

National Museum of African Art
Diptych format etching included in a portfolio of seven prints. This etching features a cat face on the proper right.

Tribute to Malcolm X [Black Journal segment]

National Museum of African American History and Culture
This 16mm black and white film print is a short documentary made for the National Education Television's Black Journal television program. Editor Madeline Anderson compiled footage of Malcolm X to commemorate the four year anniversary of his assassination.

Consists of: 16mm Film (a), Original 600 foot metal Film Reel (b), and Original 600 foot metal Film Canister (c).

2012.79.1.37.1a: 16mm film. This film opens with footage of the public attending the funeral/wake of Malcolm X, and a voice-over of a male narrator recounts the sentiments of some individuals describing what Malcolm X meant to the African American community during his life and after his assassination. Malcolm X's wife, Betty Shabazz, discusses Malcolm's early childhood roots, family, stints in foster care and boys' homes, and his struggle to stay on the straight and narrow in Boston, MA. The narrator then picks back up describing Malcolm X's biography and attitude towards race relations and integration in America. Excerpts from various television interviews with Malcolm X play. During the first interview clip, Malcolm explains why he believes integration has not been successful and cannot be successful (during that particular point in time) unless certain issues are addressed. In the second interview clip, Malcolm discusses why he was silenced by the Nation of Islam for a comment he made shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He elaborates on what he actually meant by saying that "chickens are coming home to roost" amid an unaddressed climate of hate in the United States. The third interview is with Malcolm after he returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca. American reporters ask him about his feelings on integration in America, now that he has returned from Mecca, where Muslims from all over were participating in the pilgrimage to Mecca together. Malcolm states that his feelings on integration have not changed as a result of the brotherhood he experienced during his trip Mecca. An interview with Betty Shabazz picks up again, and she further explains her late husband's beliefs concerning integration and his wish to redirect the goal of the black struggle from civil rights to human rights by internationalizing the struggle and aligning African Americans with other marginalized groups around the world. Another interview with Malcolm X plays, and he explains, in his own words, how human rights is an international issue that should be addressed by the United Nations. Footage of a civil rights demonstration plays. Malcolm X addresses students in Selma, Alabama and talks about charging the United States with human rights violations. Further, he tells a story in which he defines what he believes to be the difference in mentality between what he calls a "field negro" and a "house negro". He states that he is a "field negro" ready to fight for his freedom.

2012.79.1.37.1b: Original 600 foot film reel.

2012.79.1.37.1c: Original 600 foot film canister. The metal can has two sticker labels, one on each side, with the name of the film and the film distribution company or organization.

Womanology 12

National Museum of African Art
Oil painting depicting the upper body of a woman in red dress and white hat with red ribbon looking through binoculars off to her left, surrounded by and abstract background of blue and black brushstrokes.

60 Minutes Stopwatch

National Museum of American History
The most-watched news program in American history, 60 Minutes (CBS, 1968- ) revolutionized television journalism with its pioneering newsmagazine format. As conceived by producer Don Hewitt, the show includes a mix of breaking news, investigative reports, interviews, and commentary. The famous opening logo, a ticking stopwatch, also marks time between segments. This watch was used on the program until the late 1990s, when it was replaced by a computer graphic.

A 360-Page Book That No One’s Ever Been Able to Read Is Coming Back Into Print

Smithsonian Magazine

First edition copies of “the world’s weirdest book.” Photo: Carl Guderian

In 1981, a peculiar book was published under the name Codex Seraphinianus. This translates from Latin into “Serafani’s book,” referring to its creator, Italian artist and designer Luigi Serafini. Serafini’s 360-page-long book (sometimes divided into two volumes) was full of strange, dream-like sketches accompanied by text in what appears to be a made-up, squiggly alphabet. AbeBooks describes it:

Essentially an encyclopedia about an alien world that clearly reflects our own, each chapter appears to deal with key facets of this surreal place, including flora, fauna, science, machines, games and architecture. It’s difficult to be exact because no-one has ever understood the contents page.

Philologists and lay readers alike viewed the book’s code as a challenge, but over the years, everyone who tried failed to decipher the text. Only the page number system has ever been worked out.

Today, original editions of the Codex sell for up to $2,000. But thanks to a thriving underground fan base, the Codex is now being revived, with new printings on sale for $125, New York Magazine reports. In an interview with Dangerous Minds, Serafini’s publicist said that the new version will include two chapters of new drawings and a 22-page “Decodex” that explains how Serafini envisioned the work, including “the crucial help he had in this from a white cat.”

The Decodex will not, however, provide answers about what the Codex actually means. Serafani seems to doubt anyone ever will crack that puzzle, precisely because he insists that it means nothing. “The writing of the Codex is a writing, not a language, although it conveys the impression of being one. It looks like it means something, but it does not,” he said several years back, according to New York. For fans, however, even the author’s assurance that the language is meaningless is not a reliable enough reason to stop them from trying to extract the Codex’s secrets.

More from Smithsonian.com:

One of the World’s Oldest Bibles Is Now Online  
In Honor of Wikipedia’s Near Completion, Here Are Its Most Awesomely Weird Entries 

A Better Way Than Torture to Obtain Information: Acting Friendly

Smithsonian Magazine

Most of the information that the CIA obtained from the torture of terror suspects, the report released last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded, could have been obtained in other ways. And, in fact, studies show that a much more humane method of interrogation actually works.

As Olga Khazan for The Atlantic puts it, to obtain information from suspects, "Pretend to be their friends."

One study, released earlier this year, interviewed 34 interrogators from countries including Australia, Indonesia and Norway. The researchers also interviewed 30 detainees who had been terror suspects. Both groups were mostly men; there was one woman in each group. And they were completely separate groups of people—the interrogators had not been the ones questioning the detainees, according to the Research Digest blog of The British Psychological Society. 

One in five of the detainees reported experiencing methods constituting torture in their interrogations. But the researchers found that when the interrogation included a "rapport-building approach," a transfer of information was 14 times more likely to happen early in the process. In that apporach, interrogators might have expressed concern, indicated that they liked the detainee and used humor. A comfortable setting for the interrogation also made it more likely that people would disclose the sought-for information.

The researchers wrote in their report, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, that coercive techniques—which include torture and accusations of specific crimes—were "counterproductive." 

In an interview with PRI, a former U.S Army interrogator relates his own experience "bonding" with terror suspects during his work in Iraq from 2009 to 2010. Joyce Hackel, PRI’s reporter, relates that the methods the interrogator used were not at all like the CIA’s torture or the abuses that happened at Abu Gharib:

Andrew says he saw none of that with his unit, and, in fact, when detainees weren't dealt with harshly, they got confused. "We use techniques that manipulate people, but we don't physically or psychologically harm them," he says. Instead the interrogator might talk about the detainee's family and offer tea.

"They see that this isn't the big, bad American facade that they were led to believe," he says. "It changes their perspective, and almost turns their mindset against their organization, and they're thinking, 'Why would they lie to me?' And then they're more willing to actually share secrets with us." 

After bonding with one Iraqi over the television series "24," Andrew got the man to recant false information and deliver the correct story.

A Bold Statement

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Australian graphic designer Mark Gowing designed this poster to advertise the film Tyson, a documentary about the controversial and legendary boxer Mike Tyson. The critically-acclaimed film was directed by James Toback, and closely follows Tyson’s career and personal life through lengthy interviews and archival footage. For his poster design, Gowing adapted elements from the graphic...

A Brief History of America's Appetite for Macaroni and Cheese

Smithsonian Magazine

Being a judge at a macaroni and cheese competition in San Francisco taught me a lot about American food. The competitors were mostly chefs, and the audience—the online tickets sold out in minutes—was soaking up the chance to be at a “Top Chef” kind of event, but more urban and cool. The judges included a food writer, an award-winning grilled-cheese-maker, and me, a cheesemonger.

We awarded the win to a chef who made mac and cheese with an aged Vermont cheddar. The audience, however, chose another contestant. When he arrived at the winner’s circle, he made a stunning announcement: His main ingredient was Velveeta.

Amazement! Shock! Betrayal! The audience clutched their ironic canned beer but didn’t quite know how to react. Was it a hoax? A working-class prank against elitism in food? Was this contest somehow rigged by Kraft? In the end it turned out to just be a financial decision by the chef: In great American tradition, he bought the cheapest protein possible.

To understand the evolution of macaroni and cheese is to realize that pursuit of the “cheapest protein possible” has been a longstanding quest of the American food system. At times, cheese itself has shared a similar trajectory. Cheesemaking, which began 10,000 years ago, was originally about survival for a farm family or community: taking a very perishable protein (milk) and transforming it into something less perishable (cheese) so that there would be something to eat at a later date. Many of us today think of cheese in the context of tradition, flavor, or saving family farms, but a basic goal—whether a producer is making farm-made cheddar or concocting the cheeseless dairy product Velveeta—has always been getting as much edible food from a gallon of milk as possible. Cheesemakers weren’t always successful at this. Cheese is vulnerable to mold, rot, and maggots, not to mention pitfalls like excess salt. Many generations of cheesemakers have tossed countless bad batches, which meant feeding a lot of precious protein to their farm animals instead of their families.

The first cheese factory in the U.S. was built in 1851, making cheddar one of the first foods affected by the Industrial Revolution. Before that, all cheese made in the United States was made on a farm, usually by the farm wife or—on prosperous farms—a cheese maid or an enslaved woman. As foods industrialize, they often go from being made by women to being made by men, and so it was with cheese: Women were mostly absent from the make rooms of these new cheese factories, and didn’t return to cheesemaking until the artisanal cheese revolution of the past few decades.

Processed cheese, which was invented 107 years ago, is basically cheese that is emulsified and cooked, rendering it much less perishable (but also no longer a “living food” because, unlike natural cheese, processed cheese’s flavor will no longer alter with age). The advent of processed cheese has led over the years to innovations like Kraft Singles, Easy Cheese, powdered “sauce” for boxed mac and cheese, and Velveeta—a type of processed cheese when it was invented in 1918, and now a dairy-based processed food, with 22 ingredients, that is no longer regulated as a cheese.

Processing cheese was a good way to make food for soldiers at war, to turn safe but not-as-good-as-standard cheese into edible food, and to save producers when there was a glut in the market and too much cheese to sell. It was also a good way to get nutrients to people who didn’t have refrigeration. Ironically, perhaps, it was the culmination of the age-old cheesemakers’ goal: producing as much edible food as possible from the original protein.

Advertisement from the 1950s for Wheatsheaf brand tinned “macaroni cheese.” (Image courtesy of Flickr)

Although processed cheese was invented in Switzerland, big American cheese producers—as part of our factory-scale, get-big-or-get-out philosophy of food production—bought into processed cheese so heavily that the very definition of “American cheese” has come to be a processed product. Many Americans may never have had a macaroni and cheese made with real cheese, and many who grew up on mac and cheese may never have had a version that wasn’t made with a powdered mix. While the most popular brand of boxed mac only just recently quietly removed artificial colors and preservatives from their “cheese sauce,” it seems, from a traditional roux-making perspective, still far removed from the original recipe.

Macaroni and cheese has been served as long as there has been a United States of America, but in a 20th-century economy driven by convenience packaging and industrialization, it was elevated to an ideal American food: Pasta and processed cheese are very cheap to make and easy to ship and store, and they certainly fill up a belly. It’s no wonder a hot gooey Velveeta mac and cheese tastes like a winner to so many Americans, even those attending a fancy contest in San Francisco.

As with many foods, white culture and African-American culture diverge on the make and use of macaroni and cheese. Food historian Adrian Miller points out that while Thomas Jefferson often gets credit for popularizing macaroni and cheese in the United States, it was of course his enslaved black chef James Hemmings who learned to cook it. In the Antebellum South, mac and cheese was a weekend and celebration food. Many African Americans have continued this tradition to this day.

I have a collection of quotes I post above my computer for writing inspiration and as a reminder to examine my own historical assumptions. One is from Miller from the Charlotte Observer on November 15, 2017: “They [older black people interviewed by Miller for his book] were convinced mac & cheese was something white people stole from us. I thought they were kidding, but they were like, ‘No, it’s like rock ‘n’ roll—we started that.’ They were serious.”

This is the conundrum and beauty of mac and cheese. It is one person’s survival food, another person’s staple main course, and yet another person’s food of culture and celebration. Divided, as America is, along class and race lines, when you bring up mac and cheese you have to be careful or you may be talking about a different mac and cheese altogether.

The one thing that does seem to unify people who eat macaroni and cheese is that everyone views it as “comfort food”: Whichever form of mac and cheese people grew up with, it provides them with something visceral that they want to recreate as adults. In my experience selling food, I’ve seen many folks who eschew one of the major components of the dish, due to allergies or politics, yet expend great effort trying to find or create gluten-free or vegan simulacra. It’s just that important to them.

I truly grasped how macaroni and cheese works as comfort food while visiting cheesemakers in Maine and Vermont in 2006 to meet some of the artisans whose food I sold and to learn more about the cheeses of the Northeast. That year was an amazing time for cheese. Decades of work by back-to-the-landers and multigenerational cheesemakers were finally coming to fruition and an appreciation for the beauty of inefficiency had provided an opportunity for American cheesemakers to start creating new cheeses, and to reinvigorate old-fashioned ones that had never industrialized or had gone extinct in this country altogether.

At that time, all of this cheesy activity was new, and because of that, these artisan cheesemakers often welcomed us with spare beds and home-cooked meals.

They gave us so much cheese that we had to put out the word to friends and friends of friends, who met up with us in convenient parking lots as we drove through small-town New England. We handed them cheeses out of our rental car trunk—brainy-looking goat cheeses, clothbound cheddar, oozy rice-flour-rinded Teleme, pungent blues. That many of these cheeses were just a few years away from being recognized as some of the best in America made it an especially sweet contribution to our extended community. To passersby, it must have seemed like the oddest smelling drug deal ever.

Unfortunately, one of the cheese-making couples we had been looking forward to visiting had begun breaking up by the time we arrived. As we pulled up, one half of the couple had moved out temporarily, while the other half and the kids were packing their things to move out permanently. We stayed in that house to be supportive, surrounded by all the emotions that go along with a breakup, especially a sudden one: anger, blame, despair, doubting of self-worth, fear of the unknown … all of ‘em.

I don’t remember whose idea it was to cook a big dinner, but it gave us something to do during the time we thought we’d be talking cheese and frolicking with the farm animals. What does one cook as an antidote to despair? Especially when one is staying at a farmstead dairy and loaded down with the best cheese the Northeast has to offer? Mac and cheese, of course.

Someone was dispatched to raid the farmstand shop. I brought out our collection of cheese from the farms we had visited. If we had actually paid retail, our meal might have been the most expensive per-serving mac and cheese in history.

But that wasn’t why it was so great.

Our mac and cheese elevated us emotionally because it brought everyone together for the common tasks. There was cheese grating, roux making, onion chopping, vegetable prepping, side dish making. Soon, while despair was not entirely gone, it wasn’t quite as thick. The rehashed jokes of shared cooking inevitably came. The anticipation of something-that-was-not-misery came. When the meal was prepared, we all sat down to eat—and drink—and create the possibility of new community in the very location where the past configuration had been destroyed. That is what comfort food does.

A Brief History of Lee Harvey Oswald's Connection to Cuba

Smithsonian Magazine

Donald Trump raised eyebrows this week when he alleged that the father of his former rival in the Republican presidential primaries once had links to Lee Harvey Oswald. The claim, which came just hours before Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz dropped out of the election, stemmed from a recent story in the National Enquirer suggesting that Cruz's father, Rafael, can be seen in a photo of Oswald and several pro-Cuba activists several months before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The allegations were summarily dismissed by the Cruz campaign, and the Miami Herald’s Maria Recio points out several gaping holes in the theory shared by the real estate mogul and the supermarket tabloid. But while these unsubstantiated claims might seem like just another surreal beat in this odd election year, like any good conspiracy theory, the story relies on real history, in this case the decades-old argument that there was a deep connection between the presidential assassin and Communist Cuba.

In many ways, Fidel Castro’s Cuba was one of Kennedy’s greatest nemeses during his tenure as president. From the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the small island nation played a central role in Kennedy’s foreign policy. After all, having a Communist country within spitting distance of the United States was a persistent bugbear of Kennedy’s short-lived presidency, David Corn writes for Mother Jones. In addition to these public efforts, Kennedy was also waging a secret war against Castro, with the CIA developing all sorts of plans to try and kill the Communist leader (a choice few involved an exploding seashell and a poison-spewing pen).

Cuba and Castro’s politics also played an outsized role in Oswald’s life, but in a very different way. While Kennedy strived to take the dictator down, Oswald spent years advocating on behalf of Castro and his Communist regime in the United States. At one point, Oswald reportedly applied for passage to Cuba at its embassy in Mexico City, but was allegedly rejected because the government feared he was an undercover provocateur. The photo that resurfaced on the National Enquirer’s cover in April was taken three months before Oswald assassinated Kennedy, when he and a pair of hired hands were passing out pamphlets on behalf of a pro-Castro organization called the "Fair Play for Cuba Committee," Philip Bump reports for the Washington Post.

With this in mind, it wasn’t too much of a leap at the time to suppose that Kennedy could have been the target of a Cuban-led conspiracy with Castro at the head. In fact, even Castro himself understood how easily it would be for him to be blamed for the president’s death – and he had good reason to fear that conclusion. If investigators determined that Castro had been behind the killing in any way, that could be considered an act of war and grounds for an American invasion of Cuba, Jeffrey Goldberg writes for the Atlantic. Castro went so far as to secretly meet with a member of the Warren Commission that investigated the circumstances around Kennedy’s death on a yacht off of Cuba’s coast in order to convince American officials that he had nothing to do with Oswald.

Ironically, Castro himself has said he believes Kennedy was assassinated for his actions towards Cuba. During a 2013 interview, Castro told Goldberg that he believes in several popular conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s death, including that there were multiple shooters and that Oswald may have acted on behalf of members of the American government.

The events may have lined up to suggest a narrative where Oswald killed Kennedy because of his anti-Cuba policies, but it seems incredibly unlikely that Rafael Cruz (a Cuban refugee and avowed anti-Castro activist) would have had anything to do with the pro-Castro Oswald.

Today, 53 years after the fact, it remains impossible to do anything but speculate on Oswald’s intentions. And in the absence of evidence, all manner of wild-eyed theories continue to easily take root.

A Brief History of Sesame Street’s Snuffleupagus Identity Crisis

Smithsonian Magazine

The long-running, classic children’s show Sesame Street is well-known for teaching kids more than just their ABCs and 123s. This year’s addition of a Muppet with autism is just the latest effort to introduce diversity and life-lessons to children through engaging characters and stories. 

For mental_floss, Jake Rossen and Jennifer M. Wood highlight this role with a retelling of the carefully considered move to introduce Big Bird’s friend Aloysius Snuffleupagus as a permanent member to the show. Now, 30 years after that historical 1985 episode, Rossen and Wood interviewed producers and cast members on what made the reveal special.

The "large and friendly monster resembling an anteater" made his first appearance in the Sesame Street's third season in 1971, but at that time only Big Bird saw him. The two became close friends, but Snuffy’s existence stayed ambiguous—he would shuffle off screen or just miss everyone. Big Bird insisted Snuffy was real but no one really believed him, Rossen and Wood write.

For 14 years, the show kept up the question unanswered. "It was going with the whole thing of a child’s imaginary playmate, which a lot of kids have," says Emilio Delgado, who has played Luis on the show since 1971. But Martin P. Robinson, who has performed as Snuffy since 1980, saw it differently. He explains in an interview with the show Still Gaming:

He was shy, he had bad timing, and the joke was, he’s big, you can’t miss him, but adults being the way they are—preoccupied, going to work, you know—they miss those little details. And Snuffleupagus just happened to be one of those little details that they kept missing year after year after year.

But the producers realized this storyline needed to change in the early 1980s when an alarming issue started hitting the news. A 60 Minutes series on child abuse made the show runners think that it wouldn’t be a good idea to continue a storyline where one of their main child-like characters wasn’t believed by grownups. Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente says:

The fear was that if we represented adults not believing what kids said, they might not be motivated to tell the truth. That caused us to rethink the storyline: Is something we’ve been doing for 14 years—that seemed innocent enough—now something that’s become harmful?

But revealing that Snuffy was real, and not a resident of Big Bird’s imagination, would require some careful planning to make sure the message was clear. The show asked childhood development experts to help them and came up with a two-year "scheme." In the first year, Robinson explains, the cast members would learn that Big Bird could tell the difference between imaginary things and reality. Then some people would start to believe him about Snuffy, trusting Big Bird’s perception, building up to Snuffy’s reveal in its 17th season.

Even that historic episode teases the audience with several missed connections, however, until Big Bird recruits Elmo to help by holding on to Snuffy’s snuffle (trunk). The show then drives home the point they wanted to make with cast member Bob McGrath telling Big Bird: "From now on, we’ll believe you whenever you tell us something."

The storyline made it on Time’s list of the best moments in Sesame Street’s history. There, reporter M.J. Stephey quotes Dulcy Singer, the show’s executive producer at the time: "[W]e felt it important for children to feel they could talk to adults and be believed. We didn’t want to do anything to discourage children from going to their parents."

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