All that jazz

What do jazz improvisation, African American activist and intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, and the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) have in common? They are all subjects of books written by historian Eric Porter. Professor Porter describes his research interests as cultural and intellectual history, ethnic studies, music studies, and urban studies—in his own words, “kind of eclectic.”

His latest project, a soon-to-be-published book, A People’s History of SFO (UC Press, 2023), provides a recent history of the Bay Area, where Porter grew up, by focusing on how the airport was developed and how it became a public stage for activism. The book contains more than history, though, touching on “race, class, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and imperialism,” Porter said, all foundational elements of each subject he chooses as his next research muse. “Airports,” he said, “are really interesting places where lots of different people and networks come together.”

SFO has long provided a go-to stage for protest for people upset over a range of issues, from the more mundane, like noise pollution from jets, to the more attention-grabbing, like labor rights and discriminatory immigration policies. Through this lens, Professor of History Eric Porter sees the airport as a catalyst for social change. “It’s a focus in part because people are unhappy with things that happen at the airport,” he said, “but it’s also a very public place where you can get seen and heard.” Credit: Peter Giordano (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

With music, jazz enthusiast Porter’s interest centers on how a city’s culture influences the music people make, and vice versa. As “a way of expressing ideas, feelings, and experience,” music reveals a lot about how people relate to each other and their communities. In all his work, Porter said he seeks to understand how urban development shapes people and their communities. “Sometimes it’s representing people who have been marginalized,” he said. “And sometimes it’s complicating familiar narratives and celebrating radical thinking.”

—Emily Harwitz