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A University of Memphis history scholar was a featured expert on this past Sunday's episode of the PBS celebrity genealogy series "Finding Your Roots," hosted by well-known Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Susan O'Donovan, a specialist in antebellum history, spoke during an episode exploring the roots of comedian Wanda Sykes and R&B singer-songwriter John Legend (pictured), both of whom discovered in the show that they are descended from free black Americans. One of Legend's ancestors who had been freed by his master sought out his still-enslaved children and bought them himself, putting them on their own path to freedom. O'Donovan explained that this was common practice before the Civil War, when free black Americans sought to protect their loved ones who were subject to being kidnapped and sold back into bondage.

I have done my best to transcribe the first of O'Donovan's segments. View the entire program on the embedded video player below. The first segment with O'Donovan comes on around 19 minutes in:

GATES: To understand why a former slave would buy his own relatives, we headed to the University of Memphis, where historian Susan O'Donovan studies antebellum American history.

O'DONOVAN: Free people of color sometimes find it in their best interest to own their families. I mean, for starters, this is, you know, they're living in a system that's structured around the protection of slave property, so you've got to have law on your side.

In buying one's family, you have control over that family, and then you can, you know, free them.

Watch John Legend and Wanda Sykes on PBS. See more from Finding Your Roots.



Ahead of Mother's Day, CNN invited its iReporters to share their memories of their mothers and of celebrating the special day. Memphian Nicholas Pegues called me to let me know about his iReport, which recalled Mother's Day 2010 when he and his brother Aaron Davis took their mom, Marilyn Hegman-Davis, to Paulette's, the long-running Memphis restaurant that has been a favorite for special-occasion dining for decades. Pegues' iReport happened to selected for CNN.com's "8 ideas for a memorable Mother's Day." Here's what CNN wrote:

The National Retail Federation reports that about 54.3% of Mother's Day celebrants say they'll be going out for brunch or dinner.

When iReporter Nicholas Pegues and his brother took their mother, Marilyn Hegman-Davis, to brunch in 2010, they didn't choose any old pancake spot. They surprised her with a trip to Paulette's, a Memphis institution for nearly 40 years. Even more special, Pegues said, was that his mother often spoke fondly of dining there when she was younger.

"I'm a college student. Even if you're on a tight budget, you can still give your mother a quality gift," Pegues said. "Paulette's means something -- it's a trademark. She was real surprised. 'You're listening!' "

As Pegues points out, that Mother's Day dinner was significant furthermore since Paulette's moved last year out of its longtime Overton Square digs to a new location Downtown in the River Inn on Harbor Town Square. Now all those Mother's Days, proms, Valentine's Days and after-concert desserts at Paulette's can fade into memory along with so many other good times on old Overton Square.


NPR on Memphis: 'Jack Robinson on Show: Portraits 1958-72'

 
Jack-Robinson.jpg NPR's The Picture Show blog today mentions the recently released "Jack Robinson on Show: Portraits 1958-72," a collection of iconic celebrity shots from Vogue and other publications by the eponymous photographer whose work is archived and sold at the Robinson Gallery on South Main in Memphis.

The Commercial Appeal told the story behind the book when it was released in January: Robinson lived in Memphis for the last 25 years of his life, almost in seclusion, rarely talking about his past work with his celebrity subjects and his carrying-on with the Andy Warhol gang. After Robinson's death, his employer, Dan Oppenheimer, happened upon a treasure-trove of work at the photographer's apartment, much of which made it into this new volume.

From NPR:

The career lasted 17 years before Robinson came undone and moved to Memphis. There, he sobered up and took a job as a stained-glass designer. By the time Oppenheimer met him, New York City and photography and alcoholism had all been buried in the past. And there's really no one who knows much more -- at least not outspokenly.

"I kept waiting for some family member to step forward and make arrangements, and to this day no one has stepped forward," Oppenheimer says on the phone from Memphis. Robinson, it seems, left everything to Oppenheimer on purpose -- knowing it would be in good hands. He was right; Oppenheimer still gets excited when he talks about it.

"I wouldn't have known what Tom Wolfe looked like 45 years ago but I knew the name," Oppenheimer says. "It overwhelms people to this day to see all of the icons of your youth ... to see all of these people when they're 20 years old."

PICTURED: Self-portrait by Jack Robinson.

Some readers of The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle have been e-mailing the newspaper their ideas for what to name the institution created from the merger of Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences universities. A onetime Memphian offered his idea based on our own local state university's most recent name change:

The excitement and consternation over a new name for the merged Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences universities reminds Robert Hamrin of the old Memphis State University when he lived in Memphis. The school was in an athletic conference with schools like the University of Louisville and University of Cincinnati.

"Many members of the University and community felt that 'Memphis State' sounded like hicksville compared to having a name like 'University of Memphis,'" Hamrin wrote, and that's just what the school became, to much satisfaction. So his suggestion: "How about 'The University of Augusta?'" 

Why Memphis' 'sad,' 'miserable' city rankings get it all wrong

 
If you're tired of all those city rankings that always seem to find Memphis somewhere near the worst of the worst -- here are a couple of recent ones -- then check out this piece from Salon in which the author calls out blogs and websites for peddling "foolproof click-bait."

Hey, Memphis: Are you happy? Are you sure? Because Men's Health magazine isn't so certain.

Last week, in a list of the "saddest U.S. cities," Men's Health ranked Memphis, with its subtropical climate and legendary music scene, as the third-saddest city in the country. Clearly the place has taken a dive since February, when Forbes reported that Memphis is the sixth-happiest city to work in. Memphis is apparently a little slice of heaven -- as long as you're sitting at the office.

...

But for some some reason, these lists never seem to quite mesh with reality. Financial Times writer Edwin Heathcote pointed out recently that many of the places that top the "most livable cities" lists are places no one really wants to live -- it's always (no offense, guys) Provo, Utah, and Ann Arbor, Mich., and Manchester, N.H. "What, you might ask, no New York? No London? No L.A. or H.K.?" asked Heathcote. To reduce a city to metrics "is to strip out all the complexity, all the friction and buzz that make big cities what they are."


Memphis, the look of the '80s, shines in V&A exhibit 'Postmodernism'

 
The major new exhibit "Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990" at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London focuses on the contributions to MTV-age style made by the Milan-based design collective called the Memphis Group. Its name inspired by the title of the Bob Dylan song "Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again)," -- and its look informed in spirit by this city's mix of tacky and sublime -- Memphis made a splash on the world of decorative arts in the early '80s.

"Memphis's entry into the world befitted that of a rock star, rather than a furniture brand," said Jane Pavitt, a curator of the exhibit. "Thirty years is about right to start looking back with fresh eyes at a subject which has been variously derided, dismissed and treated as highly toxic."

As MTV also turns 30 this year, the show will include elements of video and music, including performances from David Byrne, Grace Jones, Devo, Laurie Anderson, Neneh Cherry, New Order, Kraftwerk and Grandmaster Flash -- artists who employed the key postmodern strategy of sampling and editing together different style tropes, Ms. Pavitt said.

Also included in the show are works by artists like Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol, and architects like Philip Johnson. But the show goes beyond art, including pieces from luxury brands like Alessi, the fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Stephen Sprouse, album and magazine covers, and films like Ridley Scott's science-fiction classic "Bladerunner."


The Guardian has a nice video and other coverage of the exhibit and the Postmodernist movement, including the Memphis Group.


Gawker praises The Commercial Appeal for pointing out Schnucks' lie

 
Media snark site Gawker gave a pat on the back today to The Commercial Appeal for calling out Schnucks on its deceptive statements. Recall that the St. Louis-based grocery chain denied it was closing up shop in Memphis mere days before it did that very thing.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal took the extraordinary (but should not be extraordinary) step of pointing out that a PR person lied to it -- Lori Willis, head of communications for Schnucks grocery stores, told the paper outright that the company was not going to be sold, just days before it was sold. Her penance: being cursed forever with the title of "Schnucks spokesperson."

Ad Age names Memphis firm archer>malmo one of 'Best Places to Work'

 
Memphis ad agency archer>malmo was rated No. 9 on a list of "Best Places to Work in Media & Marketing," compiled by Advertising Age.

The Memphis-based diversified marketing-services agency has 100 employees and works in digital, PR, experiential and direct response with a 60/40 mix of consumer and business-to-business clients that include Palm Beach Tan salons, Grizzly smokeless tobacco, Hilton Hotels, Gold's Gym's Gold's Express unit, agricultural chemical marketer Valent U.S.A. and Norfolk Southern Railroad.

CEO Russ Williams pointed out specific aspects of archer>malmo's culture that make it a pleasant place to work:

Culturally, he said, the agency is a "low-ego environment" that tries not to take itself or its business too seriously.

All that is backed verbatim by employees in Advertising Age's survey, which also included a comment from one employee that the agency had "the most reasonable workload of any agency I've ever worked for."


The Miami Herald's wrestling column features an interview with legendary Memphis wrestling promoter Jerry Jarrett, who is promoting both the film documentary "Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin'" and his own autobiography, "The Best of Times." Jarrett touches on everyone from WWE mogul Vince McMahon to Jerry Lawler to the great Saturday-morning announcing duo of Lance Russell and Dave Brown.

"At that time, Lance felt compelled to say every card was great. He was the carnival barker. Your credibility is more important than the credibility of our company because if the people don't believe you, who else will they believe. So Dave and Lance would literally tell the people, 'Here's the card Monday night folks. Let's get ready for our next match.' If it doesn't excite them, it doesn't excite fans. If it was a card Lance and Dave thought was great, they would say that, and people would come, because it was great. The people believed in it."
Thumbnail image for jwrobo.jpg Above: Andrew Olney (right) and David Hanson assemble the Philip K. Dick android at the FedEx Institute of Technology in this June 29, 2005, file photo.


Down in Australia, 774 ABC Melbourne's Lindy Burns interviews David F. Dufty, an Australian who has written a new book about some cutting-edge yet quirky research that took place right here in Memphis -- and a bizarre series of events that followed.

Dufty's "Lost in Transit: The Strange Story of the Philip K. Dick Android" tells the story of an award-winning robotics project undertaken in the early and mid-2000s by software programmer Andrew Olney and sculptor/hardware designer David Hanson in a collaborative effort with the University of Memphis' FedEx Institute of Technology and other research centers. Olney and Hanson, working on developing a fully functional human-like android, decided to base the machine's personality and likeness on that of cult-favorite science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose paranoid stories of dystopian futures have been adapted into such films as "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and the recent "Adjustment Bureau."

In a story in The Commercial Appeal from July 2005 (not available online, but I've pasted it to the jump of this post), Olney, a native Memphian and PhD candidate at the time, described the "phildickian" automaton like this: "It's an interactive robotic sculpture. You can talk to it. If you ask it long-winded Philip K. Dick kinds of questions, it'll come back with real Philip K. Dick kinds of responses, a lot of times drawing from interviews, speeches and stuff like that."

The following January, someone transporting the robot's head to Google headquarters in California lost the bag in which he was carrying it. The head never again turned up.

Working on a postdoctoral fellowship at the U of M, Dufty had struck up a friendship with the robotics crew there. As he told Burns:

"They were doing amazing stuff in conversational artificial intelligence and other things like that. And I just happened to know some guys who were key in this project to kind of reincarnate Philip K. Dick the science-fiction writer as an android. And i saw the whole thing take place, and it was just an amazing series of events."

Dufty called the decision to model the android after Dick, whose stories often involve future societies in which humans and androids live among one another, "stroke of genius."

"It was kind of a bit of a stunt, but it was really just a way of giving form to something they were gonna do anyway: 'Let's actually make it Philip K. Dick, make the android think it's Philip K. Dick, and wouldn't that be totally cool,' and it was.



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