By Lisa M. Ruch

Environmental topics such as climate change and pollution garner widespread attention every April, but increasingly are the focus of more and more people year-round. These crises are not recent, but much of the focus on them has come from scientific disciplines and practitioners. When faced with the unsettling and at times alarming predictions of science, many in the general public shut down, either from fear or from a lack of emotional response to hard scientific data. Musician and composer Geoffrey Hudson, co-founder of Hybrid Vigor Music, Inc., considered the dilemma of how to engage the wider public into deeper thought about the topic to inspire change and realized that music, with its power to evoke emotion, could be the perfect means. His choral oratorio A Passion for the Planet is the result.

 

The piece, which runs to an hour in performance time, is written for adult and children’s choirs, two soloists, and orchestra. Rather than write lyrics for the entire piece, Hudson spent months reading scientific studies, looking for passages to integrate into the work. Books such as David Orr’s Dangerous Years1, Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded2, and Bill McKibben’s Eaarth3 provided ample disturbing and stark images, while the now-famous “hockey stick” graph (Mann, et al.) made an ideal nexus point to aurally depict the extremity of crisis.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to sing in the premiere of A Passion for the Planet and went into the rehearsals curious about how this scientific prose and information would resonate in song. It was a novel experience to sing words and phrases such as “chemical sludge,” “primeval goo,” “cancer and cell mutations,” and “pollution and environmental damage.” Other singers seemed to have the same ambivalence at first, but as we became familiar with the texts and the music, acceptance and engagement came quickly. I found myself thinking more deeply about the topics, and fellow singers told me they did as well.

After an introduction that celebrates the Earth’s gifts and humanity’s place within it, the oratorio transitions to the grim depictions of pollution, abuse of natural resources, and overpopulation, rising to a literal crescendo in the seventh movement. Here Hudson composed a musical depiction of the hockey stick graph, with the planet’s average temperature over centuries represented by pitch, extinction rates represented by the number of notes per measure, and the rise in human population represented by dynamics. Over almost six minutes, the sound, steady and droning at first, builds to a cacophony in which the singers repeat phrases and deconstructed words of lament. As Hudson explained, “I didn’t need words for that—the data were enough” (Voth). The movement concludes abruptly and chillingly with a percussive crash followed by an ominous silence; it is emotional to sing and audience members reported that it was eerie and impactful to hear.

It is this ‘deer in the headlights’ fear and paralysis that prevents many people from delving deeper into these ecological issues; considering these crises in depth is frightening, and the problems seem huge and insurmountable. It is at this point in A Passion for the Planet that Hudson leverages a powerful cathartic emotional response by bringing in the children’s choir to sing, “What have you done / with what was given you, / what have you done with / the blue, beautiful world?” (Hudson, Movement VIII). This plaintive query, sung in the pure, innocent tones that only a children’s choir has, leaves listeners shaken and teary. The adult choir then joins the children, adding further details of the distressing impacts of humankind’s unchecked exploitation of natural resources.

Listeners are not left in limbo, however. A shift in tone, akin to the turn in a sonnet, opens the final portion of the oratorio, where Hudson wanted to give the audience hope and encouragement. David Orr’s trope that “hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up” (Hudson. Movement IX) invokes purposeful action, action carried out not by individuals working piecemeal, but by people working together. The choirs and soloists combine to represent this shared effort as they sing, “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love; therefore we are saved by faith; therefore we shall be saved by hope” (Hudson, Movement X).

To involve the audience in this communal endeavor, Hudson chose to conclude the oratorio in the time-honored fashion with a chorale to be sung by the listeners along with the choirs. For the premiere performance, the audience was taught the chorale before the oratorio began so it was familiar to them. As they rose to sing it in the final movement, the atmosphere was electric. One audience member related afterward that singing it “was one of the most moving concert experiences of my life. When it came time for the audience to join in, I found it hard to sing, I was so overwhelmed—and looking around I realized that many audience members were in the same boat” (“Passion for the Planet”), while the conductor recalled, “It was such a thrill and emotionally overwhelming when the audience joined in during the performance. Many were in tears” (Thornton).

 

Learn More about A Passion for the Planet

 

This coming together as one group is symbolic of the potential power of people joining to address the ecological crises facing the planet and is the goal of A Passion for the Planet. Hybrid Vigor Music’s intention is to facilitate performances nationwide to encourage public involvement with climate and pollution issues and their remedies. The Covid-19 pandemic sidelined performances planned for 2020 and 2021, but in the interim the piece and its aims have been publicized by Hudson and climate scientists such as Bill McKibben and Michael Mann in webinars supported by the National Museum of Natural History, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other organizations.

Such interdisciplinary collaboration is the theme of A Passion for the Planet, showcasing both the powerful impact the humanities can have when leveraged in concert with the sciences—in this case, both literally and figuratively—and the myriad ways the humanities can benefit the public. After all, our planet’s systems are inextricably interconnected; our human endeavors must be as well.

 

Notes

  1. Orr, David W. Dangerous Years: Climate Change, the Long Emergency, and the Way Forward. Yale University Press, 2016.
  2. Friedman, Thomas L. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How it Can Renew America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
  3. McKibben, Bill. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Times Books, 2010.

 

Works Cited

Hudson, Geoffrey. A Passion for the Planet, 2019.

Mann, Michael E., Raymond S. Bradley, and Malcolm K. Hughes. “Global-Scale Temperature Patterns and Climate Forcing over the Past Six Centuries.” Nature, vol. 392, 23 April 1998, pp. 779-787.

“A Passion for the Planet.” Hybrid Vigor Music, www.hybridvigormusic.org/our-projects/a-passion-for-the-planet/. Accessed 11 April 2021.

Thornton, Tony. “A Passion for the Planet.” Choral Planet, www.choralplanet.com. Accessed 11 April 2021.

Voth, Ellen Gilson. Music in Response – 3. Farmington Valley Chorale. 21 February 2021. Webinar.

About the author:

Lisa M. Ruch is Professor of English and Communications and Assistant Dean of Liberal Studies at Bay Path University. She also sits on the Board of Directors of Hybrid Vigor Music, Inc. Her training in comparative literature has instilled in her a deep regard for interdisciplinary studies and the public value of the humanities.

by Alissa Simon

Rebecca Mead’s book My Life in Middlemarch weaves a well-researched narrative that involves land, people, women, love, and story-telling, among other things. Mead incorporates her own journey to underscore the way that Middlemarch changes with every decade of life. My Life in Middlemarch explains how one can continually learn lessons from a single book. In fact, it has instructed (and continues to instruct) Mead’s understanding of character, moral, intellect and empathy. She feels that Eliot’s novel cannot be minimized into quotations. Actually, quite the reverse, the book rejects summary. With each decade, the novel speaks to a different aspect of Mead’s own life. Through a variety of characters, Middlemarch underscores the complicated nature of life, reminding us that sometimes the choices we receive are out of our control. Eliot’s book, in other words, looks closely at the many large and small complications in the web of life. Mead’s book echoes this journey by incorporating personal narrative, research of Eliot’s own life, and a sense of Middlemarch itself. 

Via the Washingtonian, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Near the beginning, Mead introduces questions of motherhood which haunted Eliot who did not have any children of her own. Rather, Eliot grew to love and care for George Lewes’ children. When the youngest child died at the age of twenty-four, Eliot too feels this loss deeply. Mead writes, “A book does not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book. Now when I read the novel in light of Eliot’s life, and in the light of my own, I see her experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel – not as part of the book’s obvious pattern, but as part of its tensile strength. Middlemarch seems charged with the question of being a stepmother: of how one might do well by one’s stepchildren, or unwittingly fail them, and of all that might be gained from opening one’s heart wider.” (110). Mead connects with Eliot’s experience because of their shared experience as a stepmother. 

More than understanding our own lives, however, Mead describes Eliot’s book as a passage through the big questions of life. In attempting to understand art and the role of the artist, Mead explores an Eliot quote: “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally. The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” (56). Furthermore, she claims that these characters grant us a sort of self-awareness. They offer a lens through which to measure and weigh our own lives. Mead writes, “Looking back from the vantage-point of forty-five, though, twenty doesn’t look quite so far away. We are still recognizably ourselves, with many of the same confusions, even if experience has abated them, and granted us some self-awareness. We can hope, at best, that growing older has given us some degree of emotional maturity, and a greater understanding of the perspectives and the projections of others.” (162-3). Novels provide a space to ask what we might do in another’s situation and Middlemarch presents a great variety of characters of ambiguous morals. These characters address issues of poverty, wealth, religiosity and moral depravity, love and power, among many others. Since Mead herself has grown up with this novel, she highlights many of the same themes in My Life in Middlemarch

Middlemarch gives me a deep love of virtue, but only as it relates to flawed individuals. Eliot expresses the refreshing notion that flaws do not contradict virtue. In fact, virtue is built upon our response to flaws, and Rebecca Mead not only embraces this theme, but reinforces it by scaffolding her own journey with the wonderfully researched narrative My Life in Middlemarch.

About the Author

Alissa Simon is a Tutor at Harrison Middleton University. Though she is interested in (and studies) all sorts of literature, she typically focuses on poetry and translation. When not reading and writing, she spends her time in the outdoors, rain or shine.

by Erin McCoy

After considering the subject “Feminist Perspectives on the Humanities and Higher Education,” the first question that flitted across my mind was: “What do women and the humanities have in common?”

Scrawled across my Snoopy notepad, my answer: “They have to fight to be heard.”


Of course, feminist perspectives don’t always mean “women,” and I’d add that “Higher Education” also often has to sing for its state and donor-funded supper. My vocal range is limited as a woman/feminist; my black and brown colleagues in Higher Education have it harder than me, so my voice must include and make space for theirs. And the Humanities – my official doctoral degree – usually has to raise its voice the loudest in the chorus, creating looping arias about “the importance of the humanities” over the percussive roll of “STEM, STEM, STEM, STEM” across the higher education landscape. Like the road for equality between the sexes, the path of the Humanities in the 21st century has been slow-going. As a woman working in the Humanities, I attribute part of the problem to the exhausting weariness that comes with repeatedly insisting your existence has value.

A few months ago, the University where I teach hired a consultant to assist in “restructuring” academics. As a member of the consultant’s working group – and as someone who teaches English classes – I felt dismayed when drafts of “academic organization” immediately combined my Department (English, Theater, and Interdisciplinary Studies) and the Humanities Department (Languages, History, Philosophy) with others as a first measure to cut costs. I called several colleagues – mostly women – to just listen to their thoughts; they were sharply articulate about the need for resources. One likened combining departments in the Humanities as “over-suffocating the garden”; she pointed out that money, faculty hire lines, and the overall Department budgets get a lot tighter if there’s too many plants in the pot. If anything, the Humanities need more space to breathe, as well as more water, more sunlight – more support.

And while I’d like that support to mean “people in the Humanities need to be paid more,” what I really mean is that the Humanities should be tapped for the wellspring of creative innovation they are. I recently virtually attended the annual Humanities Education and Research Association (HERA) Conference. I have been part of HERA – as a member, a newsletter editor, a non-voting board member, a conference participant – since 2011. So, as it is with Covid-19, I saw familiar HERA faces over Zoom, heard the hallmark throat-clear of a long-time HERA member over an un-muted mic, and watched seasoned and green humanities scholars probe ideas. I presented a paper on a course I’m teaching, Sports and the Humanities. I asked my audience: how do I better root the course in the Classical Humanities? I was rewarded with references to Ancient Greek urn art (as sports propaganda), the real name of Plato, and the “culture of celebrity” alluded to in antiquity texts. But it didn’t stop there. My privilege was duly checked, as were questions about including transgender and disabled athletes in the course materials.

That’s part of the problem with the Humanities – it’s so integrative, it is hard to argue that it deserves a room of its own.

To me, these exhilarating discussions essentially turn over and over William Faulkner’s assertion that “the past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” But how does literature, philosophy, Game of Thrones, Freud, Bridgerton fan-fiction, Tik Tok, etc. tell us about humanity, and it’s “present past”? I’d seen a similar exchange, but younger and more diverse, at a conference my University hosted in February – the First Virtual Interdisciplinary Studies Conference.

I’m really proud of that conference, because it was I who supplied the seed of it, and my colleague – a wife and mom and actor – took my arm and we ran with the idea. We were awarded a grant from the South Carolina Humanities Council, which funded our Zoom purchase and speaker fees. We were offered funds from Academic Affairs, but I wanted to prove that we were worth funding outside of the University. It was important that a project rooted in interdisciplinary humanities get money and thus be recognized in newsletters and Faculty Senate notes. People need to be reminded that the Humanities deserves investment. We had lots of help, support, and engagement from a third woman – another dear, female, colleague of mine, whose help with organizing the program was enough. But she went on to create presentations that brought current students and librarians together, and they were talking about race and health disparities with such grace and intelligence; it’s truly beautiful to see, our shared humanity mirrored back at each other.

The collaborative spirit – from our fellow women in the Grants and Accounts offices to our fellow faculty and to our delightful keynotes – underscored the real value of the Humanities. There were plenty of men who helped and supported the cause as well, I should add. We had a solid team helping each other out, which begets a more egalitarian product from the start; as Angela Davis noted in Freedom is a Constant Struggle (2016): “It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.” That’s part of the problem with the Humanities – it’s so integrative, it is hard to argue that it deserves a room of its own.


The 2021 NFL Super Bowl featured a spoken-word performance by poetry super-star Amanda Gorman. I cannot recall a time where a poem preceded the Super Bowl; Twitter already surged with academics and literature folks giddy over Gorman’s reading of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration. The primetime Super Bowl spot put us over the edge. Popular music is full of poetry, sacred geometry found in nature is full of poetry – studying poetry thus helps us understand the world around us. It allows us space to think about different ways to interpret that world and how we might question it, as well as to recognize what came before it.

But it does not exist only to bolster shiny “new” things, like Digital Humanities (by default, everyone working in the Humanities is doing some digital things, because we live in a digital world). I am fascinated by one of my previously mentioned colleague’s work with Medical Humanities, and I think I can contribute to it in some way, even if it’s just supporting her ideas and championing her courses. But the Humanities don’t wholly exist in these new iterations; they have long existed on their own, but in concert with each other.

Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

What’s hopefully clear, in this prose, is some celebration of the Humanities, often done in defiance of the perception that it is “lesser-than” other disciplines. The root of feminism is believing in equality, and the Humanities is a metaphor for the treatment of women inasmuch that the value of Humanities will never be the same as the value of Medicine, for example. My aforementioned partner in conferencing (and opera-trained vocalist), Ms. Libby Ricardo, read a draft of this essay and immediately followed the metaphor: “WE ARE THE ALTOS!  We create the support and foundation while others get to be flashy and thus recognized.  Everyone knows a famous Tenor or Soprano.  But an Alto?  And yet, they create the lushest sound.”  

That’s practical – we don’t hear the alto when we’re paying attention to the soaring soprano. We don’t need the arts and humanities to live (though our quarantine addiction to Netflix tells us otherwise). A friend of mine writes that he’s “a doctor, but not the kind that helps people” in his social media bio – it’s funny, but the self-depreciation also comes with defeat. When a very grumpy man derided the First Lady Jill Biden for using her professional title, Dr. Biden, because it “feels fraudulent,” academia roared back. The grumpy man’s article was also derisive, dismissive (he called Dr. Biden “kiddo”) and sexist. It goes without saying (but bares repeating) that no one would’ve written this crap about a man.

Another glass ceiling breaks, and the chorus sings on – in this anecdotal essay, the song was about women in the Humanities, and my limited, privileged view of feminism in the Humanities. I am writing this on International Women’s Day, which I’m happy to celebrate but feel put out that women only get a day; a week would be nice. But that’s how I approach some of the issues I’ve seen in higher education, in regard to Humanities – sometimes the gesture is made, but it feels half-baked. Yay, a day. Yay, an obligatory one-line “congratulations” email. But the Humanities echoes a strong lesson: If you’re always looking outside yourself (your state, your school, etc.) for support (funding, enthusiasm), you’ll never be complete, or feel “good enough.” But I think our voices are good enough. I think the Humanities has a rightful place in the Higher Education pantheon – and I plan to keep singing. Loud.

About the Author

Erin R. McCoy is an Associate Professor of English and Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Her forthcoming book about the cultural historiography of the Viet Nam War is under contract with McFarland Press.

by AC Panella

A question sometimes asked to help folks reflect on their gendered experiences something similar to, “Do you remember the first time someone asked you to change your behavior, clothing, or language because of your gender?” This question intends to evoke a memory of feeling for folks who may not have thought about their gender in an examined way. The answers to this vary; experiences from toys and imaginary play to being asked to change clothes to ‘something more appropriate’ or something similar. 

Whatever the answer, these memories are important. First, they are interactions that may have encouraged or discouraged or complicated our understanding of how our bodies move in the world. Second, remembering this interaction may have a ripple effect on our understanding of the social practices that come around gender as a society. Finally, something makes them worth remembering. With the myriad of gendered interactions, one has been exposed to and chosen or needed to forget; memory may start to outweigh impact in daily life more than policy regulations or social policing of gender. Memory functions as the historian for gendered practices. Gender, then, as a concept is a mnemonic device for both regulating and remembering in a gendered world. 

Mnemonic devices are more than word play for remembering and retelling information; a mnemonic device can be any system that uses recollection to quickly use complex information. Gender as it’s currently invoked in a U.S. context tends to function to quickly recalling the complex histories of bodies and the expectations those bodies. Gender as a mnemonic device is a complex response to colonial and binary concepts of gender, it is the remembering, forgetting, and responding to memories regarding gender within a collective social group. 

Gender & Memory

Reformulating gender as a mnemonic device builds in the multi-sensory understandings of gender and may offer new forms of interruptions that expand the legitimacy of different gendered knowledges and practices. For gender to function as a mnemonic device, we must understand the development of social memories and how to create interruptions and reposition gendered memory from the personal to the ideological. 

A mnemonic device is an artifact or system to help remember elements or qualities of a particular moment. For example, you may have learned “Every good boy does fine” to learn the lines on the music stave. Or “my very easy method just set up nine planets” to learn the order of the planets, back when we still considered Pluto a planet. These are mnemonic devices intended to quickly recall a particular kind of academic fact.  Mnemonic devices used to capture experiences, memories, or short cuts to understanding. Souvenirs are tangible objects to remind of place experience, photos capture an emotional moment, and, in society, identity categories function as a short cut to understanding the complicated histories and emotions an individual may have experienced because of their connection to social groups.

This last quality of identity may help others and ourselves remember our own notions of that particular identity. When limited to binary definitions a gender, a person may remember ‘what it means to be’ a man or woman. However, gender in its current form of mnemonic device is insufficient for representing the range or experiences of a great deal of people. This is why trans (at its broadest definition) challenges a collective memory of gender¹. The tidy framework of binary gender doesn’t offer a way to reframe gender within the embodied memories of an individual. 

Susan Stryker, author of Transgender History notes, “Because most people have great difficulty recognizing the humanity of another person if they cannot recognize that person’s gender, encounters with gender- changing or gender-challenging people can sometimes feel for others like an encounter with a monstrous and frightening unhumanness.” One reason for this difficulty in recognition, is not being able to have a recall device that challenges one’s ability to enact social practice. Without this device a person may have a destabilizing response to experiencing gender based on a recollection of what gender “should be” or “used to be.” This mnemonic practice needs to be rewritten if we are to engage with everyone’s humanity. 

Art & Memory

Art is one intervention to mnemonic practices. Art can capture and reposition gender in a material and visual way. We can see how image works to captures and reiterate those gendered memories. Sometimes in more impactful ways than direct education or interaction. For example, we are more likely to remember The Last Supper as depicted in the painting, than we might reading the thick description in The Bible. This is one type of short cut to remember a part of a religion. Art by trans folks breaks this mnemonic practice because it invokes trans memory and gives insight to how gendered memories are preserved and passed on in public. 

When this is looked at on a group level, collective memory can be a way of quickly passing on and remembering important information across that shared experience. Memory can be shared through such practices as building physical monuments, holidays, or ceremonial traditions. For example, in the LGBTQ community, June is marked as LGBTQ pride month. Events, statues, and historical landmark designations have been created to honor the memory of the Stonewall Uprisings. This captures an important social turning point. Sharing the story of Stonewall through movies, artwork, and memorials can help in understanding a historic moment and may demonstrate how a collective has shifted. 

Memories, like Stonewall, become similar to a document that has been copied too many times. The original image gets incredibly dulled or distorted the more it’s copied. Collective memory is shaped through this process with each new monument, individual interpretation and reproduction. Today there is a democratization of knowledge and memory because of technology, social media, and other projects of globalization. When it comes to gender, trans people are gaining access to seeing and learning about trans histories, mythology, and memory. 

These memories for trans people can inform and validate identity; highlighting the complicated ways gender as a concept reinforces oppressive social structures based on patriarchal and colonized thought cementing binary gender as a memory construct. There is a myriad of trans artists who tackle trans history, futurity, and memory in their work. Chris Vargas, Nicki Green, and Vick Quezada are trans identified artists who challenge the way memory functions through interrogating institutionalization, religion, and biopolitical systems of gender. Their work contributes to material interruptions of gendered mnemonic practices. 

Photo Credit: Newtown Grafitti, via Flickr

One of the most commonly displayed works of Chris Vargas’ is The Museum of Trans Hirstory. A traveling exhibit, it uses real and created objects to codify moments of trans history. Objects include Sylvia Rivera’s high heel, signs from bars, and a mug from Compton’s cafeteria. Vargas says of this installation:

 “Stories of gay and lesbian civil rights victories like the dissolution of sodomy laws, the creation of employment nondiscrimination protections, and gay marriage all tend to trace back to rebellion, while the critical role that transgender women, many of color, played in these advances has slipped deep into unseen corners of historical memory” (99). 

What Vargas produces shines a light to that “unseen corner of historical memory.”  He connects trans lineage by displaying tipping points in trans history. These objects both memorialize trans experience and elevate its importance by positioning them within a historical institution. Vargas’ work inspires us to rethink how we might ‘trans’ art and museum space to reflect the vast array of genders their memories. 

These memories for trans people can inform and validate identity; highlighting the complicated ways gender as a concept reinforces oppressive social structures based on patriarchal and colonized thought cementing binary gender as a memory construct.

Museums are one way culture institutionally transfers gendered information; religion is another. Deeply connected to memory, religion often invokes gender in ritual thus preserving it in a collective memory. Nicki Green recreates artifacts related to gendered religious traditions through ceramics and sculpture. There are many Jewish traditions that Green has been excluded from because of her trans identity. She has recast ritual objects centering a trans feminine perspective; recognizing that the memory of these objects is layered and complicated across gendered experiences. As she says,

“I’m interested in the bedikah cloth because it’s a material way of recording the body. I recognize this practice and other ritual related to the regulation of women’s bodies can be and have been traumatic for many who participate. As a trans woman, I have this distance from these rituals because my body is not halakhically or historically included in these traditions, and that distance allows me the privilege to repurpose them in a way the feels empowering” (406). 

By repurposing ritual practice to be inclusive of trans experience, Green offers trans people a pathway to reconnecting and rethinking rites of passage and celebration within Western spiritual practice. Of note is that it is a Western colonized spiritual practice; there are a variety of indigenous practices that have capaciousness for genders beyond the binary. 

Artist Vick Quezada critiques colonialism by centering their art around indigeneity and on colonialist rewritings gender. They describe their work saying, 

“Plants, like humans, can be queer; they, too, are assigned genders. In terms of my work, gender is not always explicit, but it’s certainly embedded. I am the maker so I bring myself everywhere I go, right? But my critique of settler colonialism is consistent throughout my work. The structures created by Western colonial ideologies are the same ones that create systemic oppression and control gender constructs” (np).

Through their work, Quezada demonstrates how nation states codify and reinforce what gendered expectations should be. Often pulling from and erasing indigenous resources. 

These artists show how gender is a shorthand for societal expectations, historical knowledges, and predictive mechanisms for desire and connection. Gender as a memory device, highlights the ways we reinforce and distribute power and privilege in our society through placing emphasis on gender expectations. Trans people undermine this mnemonic practice by inhabiting multiple perspectives, creating new gender identities and challenging religious and social traditions that are tied to gendered expectations. To trans gender is to make new mnemonic devices for understanding and inhabiting bodies. 

Conclusion

People with trans identities and practices defy gender as a mnemonic device because rather than relying on historic social memory, gender practices are individualized and reinvented. These practices may be ignored throughout time because memory of a binary gender system is so strong. Consistently exposed to mnemonic devices that reinforce binary gender and not challenge it; this process is built through a combination of social practice and capitalist governmental forces. We check boxes, create policy, and build environments that all reinforce historic practice of gender making it nearly impossible for trans people to find themselves in space, history, or memory in public practice. Trans activist Marsha P. Johnson has said, “History isn’t something you look back at and say it was inevitable, it happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities.” Our world can reflect our vast human experience and interrupting binary gender systems through artistic intervention is a way to reflect and share each new iteration.

Notes

  1. For this conversation, I’m defining trans as the actions and embodiment of people who do not use their gender assigned at birth to dictate their social expectations regarding tradition and desire. This can include transgender, non-binary, and gender expansive communities. This is a type of trans practice rather than a limited trans identity. For the sake of brevity, I’ll be using the term trans throughout the rest of this article but please know it’s not as an intention to obscure or erase these experiences but rather to encompass those identities and practices.

About the Author

AC Panella is a trans Ph.D. candidate in the Humanities at Union Institute and University. He has worked on a variety of projects including the Trans Leadership Academy, The LA Trans Health Coalition, and this year developing the Trans Oral History Project in conjunction with Georgia State University. His research is focused on trans collective memory and history as it’s represented in visual and material culture. When he isn’t nose deep in research, he is a full-time teacher, pet parent, and truncle (Trans-Uncle) to a super adorable three-year-old.

Feature Photo Credit: Ted Eytan via Flickr

 

by Volker Frank

I. By Way of Introduction: A Sociological Perspective of the Problem

A little more than a century ago, Emile Durkheim wrote his last book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. In it, he explained why religion and faith are such universal human phenomena, regardless of their particular expressions, Gods, or sacred texts. To him, religion’s fundamental value was not the saving of the believer for an afterlife, but what religion – in its organized and collective form – did to those who believed and practiced it: they were members of a community of values. While Durkheim succeeded in making the point, he unfortunately failed in his other goal – the recovery of a consciously and collectively shared human morality, for which the Elementary Forms was a sort of preliminary study, a foundational perspective. Durkheim realized that modern life with all its scientific revolutions and progress (technological, medical, etc.) raised a serious challenge to community life of all sorts (the nation, the Church, the citizenry, the rural towns, the educational institutions). In fact, he argued, the birth and evolution of modern life produced secularizations and separations of all kinds. Even religion itself was not immune to this development. This was a problem, he argued, because while modern life produced a more complex division of labor that gave specialization, it also weakened our social and moral ties. He was quite skeptical about modern life’s ability to reproduce – in secular form – what religion had (presumably) accomplished before the arrival of modern life. In this vision that modern life will be diverse and yet profoundly divided, confused even, about values and what values we should nurture and protect and teach, he was not alone. Other famous Sociologists, Politicians, and Philosophers also feared that modern life will be increasingly about what we have and less about who we are and who we want to be and how we see ourselves as a part of something bigger. 

II. Diversity and Inclusion, Diversity or Inclusion?

 What has happened to Durkheim’s concerns? Has the University managed to address a central problem of modern times? And has the University not only addressed it, but arrived at a “good enough” conclusion or recommendation among its teachers and with its students? I am not so sure. In other words, while a lot of Universities and Colleges, and especially those who teach the Humanities, have recently – and rightfully so – engaged more intentionally with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, frequently we are still not addressing a fundamental question: what are our values and beliefs, why do we have the values and beliefs we have, and what’s so unique about the Humanities in their attempts to clarify values for us? Is there a trade-off between diversity and inclusion? What lies underneath our talk of diversity and inclusion?

Let us assume for a second that the problem lies not so much with our attention given to diversity, but with inclusion. Many argue that finally, the Humanities are paying more attention to diversity of all kinds: here at “home” in the West (e.g. race, ethnicity, multiculturalism, gender, trans-gender, etc.) but also there “abroad” in the non-West (e.g. indigeneity, coloniality, cosmopolitanism). In the classroom, and among colleagues, talk about non-Western cultures, religions, and belief systems is not always easy. There are many reasons for this but two should be mentioned here. First, a lack of familiarity with “abroad” (produced, in part, by education biased toward the West, limited exposure to other cultures, reinforced by language limitations, and a lot more). To be blunt, or overly simplistic, not everybody who teaches about Africa, Latin America, or Asia, did what Levy-Strauss, or Geertz or Mead could do: spend years “abroad”. 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, a profound philosophical bias towards one-sided reason. Here we could mention a long line of intellectual thinkers who continue to have great influence over our Humanities: Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Smith, Darwin, Habermas, Foucault etc…Is it because they are all white males or is it because they share something that goes beyond race/ethnicity and gender? Maybe what they and others share is “subjectivism”, i.e. their ontological and/or metaphysical belief, philosophy, and their neglect of what in Anthropology is called a “wholistic worldview.” Looking beyond what is offered not only by Kant and company but also by most Sociologists and so many Social Theorists in terms of an explanation of who we are as human beings, is it possible that we are looking at a false dichotomy, and therefore not really looking at the bigger picture?

In other words, instead of looking at humans either as “agency” or “part of structure”, homo faber or homo ludens, instead of  disagreeing over whether we are, as Kant, Descartes, Smith, or Darwin had it, individuals in a competitive world, unable to fully understand and connect with the outside world, or instead of wondering if there is still a “grand narrative” since the Enlightenment (the modernization, democratization, secularization of the world), or whether the grand narrative is now a text to be de-contextualized, broken down into separate, distinct and different parts, instead of approaching the world from the perspective of Western vs non-Western, religious vs secular, developed or developing, rural or urban, rich or poor, healthy or sick, diverse and global, inclusive for some and exclusive for others, we ask again, who, what, and where are we as simple humans? But this time, we do so from a less “nominalistically” influenced world view. By nominalist I mean a world-view that assumes a dichotomous world: mind – world, subject – object, individualism – objective world, human nature is social vs. non-human nature is not social. Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, and Habermas, and others, present this world-view, their philosophical stand, their theoretical position, for some even their political position, and thus their theories represent a value to the degree to which they describe what is, what is natural, what is not, what we are, what we are not, what is reason, what is rational, what is not rational, what belongs to God and what belongs to humans, what is fact and what is (to them)  “mere ritual” and finally, what deserves to be learned and what not. These are then, at one and the same time ontological affirmations, metaphysical accounts, epistemological recommendations.

Looking beyond what is offered not only by Kant and company but also by most Sociologists and so many Social Theorists in terms of an explanation of who we are as human beings, is it possible that we are looking at a false dichotomy, and therefore not really looking at the bigger picture?

It is not that some would not have warned us. Here, one could mention a few voices: Weber argued quite eloquently that “the fate of an epoch which has eaten of the tree of knowledge is that it must know that we cannot learn the meaning of the world from the results of its analysis, be it ever so perfect; it must rather be in a position to create this meaning itself. It must recognize that general views of life and the universe can never be the products of increasing empirical knowledge” (Giddens 1971:136). E. F. Schumacher echoes Weber’s warning in that he asks “we know how to do many things but do we know what to do? He goes on to argue that the current crisis (moral, political, economic, and environmental) of western civilization is due in large part to a crisis of education. There has been, so to speak, a “metaphysical collapse” of our deepest convictions and he concludes “education which fails to clarify our central convictions is mere training or indulgence and education, far from ranking as man’s greatest resource, will then be an agent of destruction, in accordance with the principle “corruptio optimi pessima” (Campbell et al. 2002: 555).  

And so, steeped in this tradition, today our Humanities face some serious challenges. From a nominalist perspective, how do you make sense of a statement like this: The Dagara people (Southern Burkina Faso, North West Ghana), explains M. P Somé, “have no word for the supernatural.” Moreover, “the world of the Dagara does not distinguish between reality and imagination” (Somé 1995:7). Likewise, Achebe (1994) argues that, as a consequence of a Western-imposed world-view, economics and politics, philosophy and science, the “problematique” of post-colonial Africa is how to get its people “back to the authentic” or “out of” this modern or post-modern Africa. In a similar vein, Maldonado-Torres, following Heidegger, asks how can we remind or convince non-Western people that for many former colonial subjects, it is not Descartes’ I think, therefore I am, it is I am, therefore I think. How do you unpack this?! 

The good news is that there are some really interesting proposals how to get us out of this bias. And so, re-reading Achebe or Somé and others (e.g. Halton), I wonder, do they propose what in my view constitutes a non-nominalist theory, a philosophy that might acknowledge the other, the stranger, or that might even “otherize” and yet still explore common elements in our humanity as the real foundation? Thinkers like Goethe, Mumford and Gandhi, Morrison, among others, present us with the possibility that rationality (including the one so strongly represented in the Social and Natural Sciences, in the Humanities and in Philosophy), is only a part of what makes us human, and there is more to the human condition, as religion, as extra-rational, as nature shows us and perhaps unlike at any time before now, is even trying to tell us.  

III. A Modest Proposal

The way we understand each other, the way we communicate with each other, the way we are and who we might become is far from an individualistic project alone. Our common project is rational but it is also so much more, it is reasonable, emotional, symbolic, and yes, it is calculating and sometimes dishonest and, lately, very conflictual. Halton argues that ”the reasonable is far more than the rational and runs deeper than cultural and biological reductionists can admit. It includes empathic intelligence, which can feel what rational mind cannot know, as well as projective intelligence, which can body forth ideas, images, feelings, and forms utterly irrationally, though reasonably” (Halton 1995:74). Many theories and philosophies see the rational individual as the center of attention – and hence as the place from which to explain the social, yet in doing so they risk missing more than what they reveal. Emphasizing diversity at the cost of inclusion is also bound to make the same mistakes, to fall into the same bias. Diversity and Inclusion are distinct ways of looking at the world, but maybe Inclusion is more than the sum total of Diversity. Inclusion is more than adding stories about “diversity at home and diversity abroad” – as important and timely as these may be. Inclusion is about shared humanity, regardless of place and time. 

 

Works Cited

Achebe, Ch. Things Fall Apart. New York Anchor Books, 1994.

Giddens, Anthony. Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, An analysis of the writings of Marx,

Durkheim and Weber. London, Cambridge University Press 1971. 

Halton, Eugene. Bereft of Reason. On the Decline of Social Thought and Prospects for Its Renewal.

Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Maldonado-Torres N. “On the Coloniality of Being” In Cultural Studies, 21:2, 240-270.

Routledge, 2007.

Schumacher E.F. “The Greatest Resource – Education.” In Asheville Reader The Individual in the

Contemporary World. Edited by G Campbell, M Gillum, D Sulock, M West. Copley Custom Publishing Group, 2002, 540-555.

Somé, M. T. Of Water and the Spirit. Ritual, Magic, and the Life of an African Shaman. New York,

Penguin, 1995. 

Tantillo, A. O. Goethe’s Modernisms, New York, Continuum 2010.

Wiredu, K. and Gyekye K. Person and Community. Ghanaian Philosophical Studies I. Washington,

Council for Research in Values and Philosophy. 1992.

 

 

by Ernest Young

Introduction

This article is a comparative view of social justice of Benjamin Banneker’s (1731-1806) “Letter to Thomas Jefferson” 19 August 1791, the reply “Letter to Benjamin Banneker”, 30 August 1791, the “Declaration of Independence” 1776 by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826); “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” 1852 by Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) and” Ain’t I a Woman?” 1851 by Sojourner Truth (1797/-1883).


LaGarrett J King’s article, “More Than Slaves…” argues that “Throughout the mid-18th to mid-19th Centuries, Black Founders helped establish Black institutions, served in the military, developed Maroons settlements, and used media to openly challenge and critique the practical ideas of democracy” (p.88)

Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum. Photo by F Delventhal

Benjamin Banneker, the African American Astronomer, Almanac writer, Mathematician and Surveyor, wrote on Thomas Jefferson expressing his views on slavery. He uses moral suasion to reason with Jefferson on the issue of equality. He writes:

“Now sir, if this is founded in truth, I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity, to             eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us… (p 1)

He cites biblical references; paragraph eight (8) “put your soul in their souls’ stead;” Job 16:34, and James 1:17 “every good and perfect gift is from above”, challenging Jefferson to see the injustice of slavery, and the justice/rightness of freedom for all. He reminds Jefferson in paragraph seven (7) of the words from the “Declaration of Independence” written by Jefferson; “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”  

Charles Cerami’s book, Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot (2002), asserts that Banneker is a courageous free African American intellectual who dares to challenge Secretary of State Jefferson regarding slavery. If Jefferson is persuaded by Banneker to denounce slavery, then Jefferson would become a strong proponent in support of Banneker’s cause against slavery.  

Scholar, Angela G. Ray’s article “In My Own Handwriting” notes, “By sending the letter and manuscript copy of the almanac together, Banneker constructed himself rhetorically as a free man, as one capable of bestowing gifts” (p. 400) 

Jefferson’s reply to Banneker:

“Nobody wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men… (p 1)

Jefferson’s reply to Banneker is a polite platitude. He dodges the issue because Banneker is proof.

Additionally, Thomas Jefferson became a United States Diplomat, Secretary of State, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of United States.

Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence:

“Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed… (p. 1)

According to Jefferson, the government’s role is to protect individual rights and promote the general welfare of those for which it is charged to govern. 

Next, Frederick Douglass, an African American Abolitionists, Diplomat, Orator and Newspaper publisher/writer was born a slave but fought and won his freedom. Therefore, he is very adamant about the cause of freedom and liberation for all slaves. 

Douglass delivered “What to the American Slave is the 4th of July?” as part of an 1852 Independence Day Celebration at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York.

“What to the American slave is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. (p. 9)

Douglass, a former slave, knew the slave’s feelings and thoughts about this 4th of July commemoration. How can slaves celebrate freedom and liberation when, in fact, they are yet slaves and have never experienced freedom and liberation?  

Duffy and Besel’s article “Recollection, Regret, and Foreboding in Douglass’s 4 of July oration of 1852 and 1875”, argues that. 

“Douglass maintains that the Fugitive Slave Law essentially nationalized slavery. The  law made it possible for an African American man living in the North to be consigned to  slavery in the South… “(p. 10)

Douglass biblical references states: 

“This to you is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God.” (p,2) 

The Biblical Passover reference chronicles the Israelite’s deliverance form Egyptian bondage (slavery).

“And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are and when I see the blood, I will pass over you…” Exodus 12: 13

In another Biblical text he compares the British government’s tenacious hold on the colonies to Pharaoh’s dominant oppression of the Egyptians. 

He writes: “But, with that blindness which seems to be the unvarying characteristic of tyrants, since Pharaoh and his host were drowned in the Red Sea, the British Government persisted in the exactions complained of.” (p. 3)

“And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them.” Exodus 14: 28

The use of Biblical quotes by Douglass demonstrates his awareness of the United States religious heritage since its inception.  

Finally, Sojourner Truth, an African American female Abolitionists, Missionary and Orator was bilingual and spoke the Dutch language. She was born a slave but fought and won her freedom.  In her speech “Ain’t I a Woman”, delivered in Akron, Ohio, on May 28-29, 1851, Truth makes the case that women are oppressed as slaves are oppressed. She was relentless in challenging white women regarding all women’s rights. Scholar, Meredith Minister’s article: “Religion and (Dis)Ability in Early Feminism” posits: 

“In this speech, Truth’s references to her black, female body challenged religious discourses that regarded women as weak and susceptible to temptation and cultural discourses on “true womanhood… (15-16).

Truth states:

 “Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can.t have as much rights as men, cause Christ wan’t a woman! Whar did your Christ come from?”  From God and a woman! Man had nothin’ to do wid Him.

If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone, dese women togedder ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now dey is asking to de it, de men better let ‘em.”

These statements by Truth are so profound as they resonate in many circles of liberation today.

She also used Biblical references in her speech. 

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” Matthew 1: 18, 21

“If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone…”                           

“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.”  Genesis 3:6.

Frederick Douglass said it best about Truth when he eulogized her in Washington in November 1883. He said:

“Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion… (Russell, 1998, p. 419).

Conclusion

Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth are the embodiment for social justice against oppression. Thomas Jefferson wrestled with, and it was not clearly settled as to his views on slavery. They challenged the world with their lives and their words for justice and truth.

LaGarrett King argues that attention to “Black Founders” illuminates the “intellectual agency” that African Americans exercised throughout the history of the United States”. King writes:

“Such agency explores the philosophical and practical approaches to how Black Americans responded to racialization and the limited citizenship opportunities in the United States… (89).

Also, they left a powerful legacy of commitment to justice. May their contributions challenge us to continue this commitment? 

Works Cited

Banneker, Benjamin, “Letter to Thomas Jefferson” 19 August. 1781 Direct Link

Charles Cerami, Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot (2002)

Douglass, Frederick, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” 1852.  My Bondage and My 

     Freedom, New York: Druer, 1969 441-5 1852

Duffy, Bernard K. and Richard D’ Besel, “Recollection, Regret, and Foreboding in Douglass’s 

    Fourth of July Orations of 1852 and 1875”. Making Interdisciplinary Approaches to Cultural 

    Diversity 12.1 (2010): 4 -15.

Jefferson, Thomas.  “Letter to Benjamin Banneker 30 August 1791 Direct Link

   “Declaration of Independence” 1776.:  Direct Link                                                    

King, LaGarrett J. “More Than Slaves: Black Founders, Benjamin Banneker, and Critical 

     Intellectual Agency”. Social Studies Research & Practice 9.3 (2014): 88-105.

Minister, Meredith, “Religion and (Dis)ability in Early Feminism”. Journal of Feminist Studies 

     in Religion, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2013. p. 5-24.

Ray, Angela G.  “In My Own Handwriting: Benjamin Banneker Addresses the Slaveholder 

     of Monticello”. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 1.3 (1998): 387-405.

Russell, Dick. Black Genius and the American Experience. Carrol & Graf. New York, 1998.  

Truth, Sojourner, “Ain’t I a Woman” (1851) Direct Link

About the Author

Ernest Young earned a BA degree, U. of California, Santa Cruz, an M Div., Iliff School of Theology, a D. Min., Claremont School of Theology. Currently. he is a Ph.D. candidate, Union Institute & University. Also, he is a Humanities Instructor with the Los Angeles Community College District.

 

by Terry Barr

In William Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August, a man named Joe Christmas, whose racial identity sits at the center of the work, asks the following question of the middle-aged woman who has become his lover and whom he will later kill: 

“Just when do men who have different blood in them stop hating one another…” (249). 

That we still don’t have an answer to his question in 2021 is profoundly troubling. In the course I will discuss momentarily, we will almost certainly fail to provide any comforting or enlightening answers. Nevertheless, we’ll keep trying.

I have been a Professor of English for the last thirty-four years at Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, a private, liberal arts college, drawing students mainly form the deep southeast. My Senior Capstone seminar focuses on American Literature and Racial Identity, using three texts: Faulkner’s Light in August, Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Each of these novels explores a character or characters who are caught in a racial limbo. Some know their parentage and its mixed racial makeup; others have no clear idea of their racial background but have heard rumors. All are caught in a society where racial identity is a life or death matter.

Our class meets twice a week for the first six weeks of the term, and in those weeks, we talk about the theme as it applies to these novels, slowly building in research from critical sources. The students will write 500-word responses to two of the novels as part of their requirement, and they will also select a critical essay on one of the novels and make a presentation on that essay as it pertains to racial identity.

In consultation with me, each student will then come up with a central research question that he or she will pursue independently for the next several weeks, eventually turning that question into a thesis. The students are free to select one or more of the novels we’ve discussed in class, though they are not strictly bound to these texts, or to literature per se. They are free to pursue film and music, too. I can see the recent comic books-turned-films like Black Panther and The Watchmen bearing bittersweet and strange fruit for this topic. With their research, the students will write a MLA documented essay roughly fifteen pages long, and then present their research on Honors Day to the rest of the English Department and to anyone else in the college community who chooses to attend.


Our college, like many in these times, has had intense and ongoing discussions about racial diversity and what that looks like and means today. We are a very “white” college, and so as I considered the theme for this year’s seminar, Racial Identity seemed a timely choice, especially given the history of the American South and its reluctance, recalcitrance, in seeking racial equality.

As we discuss these works, I have asked the students to consider the following questions:

  1. Who in our culture gets to determine Racial Identity, and how has this group/person been allowed to make such determinations?
  2. What do we know about our own racial identity, our family’s genetic and historical background?
  3. As a child, were you given sets of social evils or taboos? If so, what were they?
  4. Has a racial hierarchy ever been suggested or imposed on you?
  5. Do you believe that you have benefitted from racial privilege? If so, how?
  6. How would you rank the social acts that most horrify you, or the ones that bestow on you the most honor or gratification?
  7. How would your family members react if you decided to date or marry someone of a different race?

I have six students in the seminar, and all are Caucasian. Because of the above questions, our discussions have been open, I believe, and frank. How would such discussions differ if one or more of the students were African American? While there is no way to know how we might alter or filter our views were we to have African American students in the class, we have at least addressed this issue, noting the problems of white people alone, trying to determine the factors that contribute to our racial misunderstanding of each other.

In our last class, we discussed the problematic scene in Light in August in which Joe Christmas, as an orphaned child, follows an African American yard man across the orphanage grounds. Joe has already been called “nigger” by both children and adults, though they do so only because Joe is different, a new boy alien to them; a loner who often finds himself in places he shouldn’t be, and who seems to harbor secrets. They are trying to put him in his place by using the most dehumanizing word anyone in that era who is white could call anyone else who is white, or black. And so, in his racial confusion, Joe follows the only black man he knows:

“‘What you watching me for boy?’ And he said ‘How come you are a nigger?’ And the nigger said ‘Who told you I am a nigger, you little white trash bastard?’ And he says ‘I aint a nigger’ and the nigger says ‘You are worse than that. You don’t know what you are. And more than that, you won’t never know. You’ll live and you’ll die and you won’t never know’ and he says ‘God aint no nigger’ and the nigger says ‘I reckon you ought to know what God is, because don’t nobody but God know what you is…’” (383-4).

The yard man is more prescient than he knows. For most of the novel, Joe wonders about his racial identity, believing and telling many that he might have some Negro blood in him. He will ultimately be lynched when the town discovers that he’s both been a lover to and killed a white woman. The lynching occurs because Joe’s colleague, “Joe Brown,” has told the sheriff that Christmas is “ a nigger.” From that moment, the TOWN decries that “that nigger Christmas” can’t be allowed to get away with his crime, even though the TOWN has never accepted the woman in question because she’s a northern transplant—a Yankee and an Abolitionist. 

Still, it’s Christmas who most confuses them:

“He never acted like either a nigger or a white man. That was it. That was what made the folks so mad” (350).

But what if he’s neither?

Ultimately, we learn that no one really knows whether the man who impregnated Joe’s mother was Black, or a Mexican, or fully White. Joe himself dies without ever knowing, but to the town and everyone else who knows him, he has forever been deemed Black.

For my students, one of the other central questions this novel raises is the role of religion in determining or interpreting racial identity. Joe is adopted by a strict Calvinist family, the father attempting to beat the fear of God into Joe. Not only doesn’t he succeed, but we know that the orphanage that places Joe in this family does so with the belief that Joe is a racially Black child. They “lie” to Joe’s new father in order to keep Joe from being sent to the Black orphanage. They claim to be trying to save the little boy.

So they lie, and the Calvinist father never knows the lie. At this point, we ask about Christianity’s role in southern racial relations. How did/have so many Southern Protestants made peace with segregation, racial superiority and hierarchy? The novel also includes a defrocked Presbyterian minister who helps us consider this and many other religious and moral questions about the inadequacy and the impotency of religion’s response in considering those outside of the racial norm. And in some cases, religion’s clear persecution of and urging crucifixion on people like Joe Christmas who outrage the religious folk by refusing to accommodate them and stay within the boundaries of boldly-marked racial identities. That Christmas might also be a Christ-figure causes us to consider Christ’s skin color and wonder about the racial category he would have been consigned to in the American South

Christmas has tried to pass as white and even as black. So, too, do two of the central characters in Senna’s Caucasia: the white mother, Sandy Lee, daughter of well-respected WASPish Cambridge socialites, and her paler daughter, Birdie. Sandy and Birdie go on the run, hiding in “caucasia” due to Sandy’s indiscretions with radical, post-1960’s revolutionaries. Because Birdie’s skin color is a bit off-white, Sandy tells everyone in white America that Birdie’s father is Jewish. Meanwhile, Sandy’s African American husband, Deck, and their older darker daughter, Cole, fade into the novel’s background, perhaps passing as the saner, if not more law-abiding pair. The burden is on Birdie, however, to come to terms with all that she is, all that society deems she should be, and what she in fact wants to be.

As a student put it in class today, regarding Birdie and her sister Cole: “How do we blend in to society when we already stand out?”

Caucasia is a novel of inversion, of viewing the negative of a photograph instead of the positive, the “norm.” And in this metaphor, we can understand negative and positive as exactly the value judgments historically deemed on those of mixed racial identity by our society.

The Vanishing Half affords comparisons to Caucasia and allows students to pair the two more closely to analyze the ways sisters, in this case twin sisters, confront or flee their racial identity. How does America force us to define ourselves because of, or despite, whom America would rather we be?

So far, my students have been up to the task of engaging in this theme. I can’t know all they’re thinking and maybe will never know. But I see their faces; I see how deeply they are thinking, and I look forward to their research and the studies they’ll present. I hope the course will change us and help us think even more deeply about who we are and how we can continue to engage with the racial identities imposed on all of us.

Works Cited

Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020.

Faulkner, William. Light In August. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Senna, Danzy. Caucasia. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

About the Author

Terry Barr is a Professor of English at Presbyterian College, specializing in Modern Literature, Creative Writing, and Southern Studies. His three essay collections, published by Red Hawk Press, are available from Amazon, and he writes regularly at medium.com about music and food culture. He lives in Greenville, Sc, with his family.

 

By Biko Agozino

How do you pronounce the name that Massachusetts Patriots gave to themselves and that is now retained as the Mascot for the University of Massachusetts, Amherst football team? Is it Minutemen as in men who were ready at a minute’s notice to answer the call to defend their independence or is it ‘Mainutemen’, or little guys who were taking on the mighty British empire?

American students and colleagues always giggle and roll their eyes when I pronounce it as mainute or  and occasionally they offer to correct my strange foreign accent. I smile and use it as a teaching moment to explain my different understanding of the name. To this they often throw up their hands and say that I might be right. Now I want to throw the challenge open to UM Amherst community to see if they have been pronouncing their historic name wrong all these years.

Lexington Minuteman Monument

In his book, The African American People: A Global History, Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University adopted the temporal definition that the Minutemen were men who were ready at a minute’s notice. However, Mark Kulansky, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, gives a clue that supports my Little Guys interpretation of the iconic name.

The story goes that the first skirmish of the revolutionary war took place when little children saw the Red Coats marching past and started pelting them with snowballs. The British troops retaliated and started chasing after the children like bullies.

The parents heard the screams of the kids and came out to defend the little guys. From that day, they adopted the name—Minutemen (perhaps) because they were not highly educated and could not tell the difference between the pronunciation of minute as in little and minute as in time. And being chauvinist, they did not care to mention the women who may have been the first to rush out at the cry of their children. In those days, the word ‘men’ embraced women and so the women who fought in the revolutionary war had to cross-dress like men to be accepted and respected as equal members of the militia.

Asante also highlighted the story of free Black men, like Mr. Salem, who joined the Minutemen from the start to fight against the British colonizers. This may be an indication that there were children of African descent among those children that waged war with snow balls against the British empire.

Free or enslaved, people of African descent were generally known as ‘inferior and subordinate beings’ under the law and it was normal for even grown men to be called boys and treated as little guys in those days and long after.

Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of the war of independence but there must have been more like him given that an estimated 500,000 people of African descent lived in the colonies at that time, according to Asante.

If you agree with me, next time the Minutemen play a game, remind the television and radio announcers that the correct pronunciation is Mainute Men. Also, what do you call your female teams or female members of the revolutionary militia? Minutewomen as in Little Women?

About the Autor

Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech, 562 McBryde Hall, 225 Stanger Street, Blacksburg, VA 24061, 540-231-7699, agozino@vt.edu.

I won’t waste words describing the hardships of 2020. Anybody reading this experienced the impact of the pandemic and social strife in our country over the past year. For many of us, the inequalities and issues under the spotlight the past year have been felt for much longer and more acutely. I, like many of you, have a rather short book of fond 2020 memories to thumb through and reflect on. One of the few highlights for me (and hopefully OTH readers) in 2020 is the work my colleagues and I have put in launching the new Oh, the Humanities! (OTH). 

As a medium to discuss, share, and ask questions within the ever-evolving definition of the “humanities”, working on OTH has meant something wholly unexpected for me after such a challenging year. Yes, the mission of promoting dialogue around the humanities, highlighting interesting works and projects, and exploring our readers’ expertise through original storytelling were all critical during OTH’s re-launch. The unexpected value I experienced, especially while in the deepest moments of quarantine, was the chance to connect the stories, projects, and reflections shared by our readers to the questions which consumed my anxieties and dejection over society’s current state. Even as an ardent supporter of the humanities, before the OTH re-launch I often felt that in defending them I drew too heavily upon esoteric or intangible concepts and felt as if my passion for the humanities was largely curated by my privilege and social bubble. 

The re-launch of OTH has reminded me of the beauty and challenge presented to those of us who are invested in the humanities. The beauty lies in understanding more of the world and society we live in by empathizing with new views, continuing to read and write critically, and connecting expertise with practices to bring forth in the public sphere. The challenge lies in how we connect all the dots and communicate to wider audiences the value of work in the humanities and why the humanities are essential for a just, informed society. Whether reading in-depth expertise in Art History or Race, promoting new modes of scholarly communication, evaluating the role of the humanities in public spaces, or serving your community and opening your perspective to challenges, everyone at OTH hopes to see you continue to participate in our small corner of the dialogue on critical subjects and developments for stakeholders in the humanities—which is everyone!

By Christopher Raab 

In 2006, I wrote a short journal article titled, “No Laughing in the Library: You Name It!  It was part of an ongoing humor series, and the article explored librarian surnames that were “professionally ironic” or “unintentionally descriptive.”  For example, the Cataloging Librarian named Field, the Database Librarian named Gale, the Scholarly Communications Librarian named Spark, etc. I remembered the article being a lot of fun to research and write, so fifteen years later I figured I’d take another shot at it.

Just as before, I began by searching surnames within the Personnel Index of the American Library Directory (ALD).  Only this time, I used the online version of the resource, as the print directory stopped being published several years ago.  (I should have realized this simple change from print to online would be a portent of things to come!)

Now 15 years is not that long, but in terms of library and information technology, it may as well be a lifetime.  To get started, I signed up for a free 14-day trial of the ALD, and began searching the “Personnel Name” field for surnames relating to the modern academic library.  

Where to start?  Well, I could search the same names I had explored in the first article, but that wouldn’t be much fun—just more of a longitudinal study I suppose.  Instead, I began with what I see and hear every morning when I walk into the library—technology.  That’s right, printers, scanners, computers, all lit up and ready for action.  To my surprise, the current ALD contained no Samsungs, Lenovos, or Epsons, but it did contain 5 Dells, 1 Apple, and 1 Acer.  Actually, it was an Acerro, but close enough! 

As for printers, there were 17 Cannons, 9 Sharpes, and 3 Packards (no Hewletts unfortunately.)  When considering network computing, I have to admit, I was disappointed.  No Ciscos or Routers, not even a Cloud.  There was, however, one lone Server (soon to retire, I’m sure.)  Of course, when I walk into the library each morning I also see (and greet!) my fellow staff members.  And the ALD didn’t let me down.  While there is currently only 1 Staff among us (read budget cuts here), there are 10 additional Staffords if needed.  Must be volunteers!

(I should have realized this simple change from print to online would be a portent of things to come!)

Next, I thought about cataloging, and all the changes that have occurred in recent years with content and descriptive standards.  Surely, there must be some surname representation within cataloging!  As one might guess, however, there were no RDAs, DCRMs, METS, MODS, Dublins, or Cores.  Simply no metadata surnames to be found.  Actually, there was one bit of good news. Archivists will be pleased to learn there are currently two Eads active in the profession!

But what about the virtual library, and the plethora of G Suite tools we now use on a daily basis?  Surely, Google must have influenced the “naming” of our profession by now.  I decided to run a few names to find out.  You may be interested to learn that while there were 27 Pages, there was only 1 Brin.  To my surprise, there were zero Searches, Chats, Forms, Docs, or Drives.  There were, however, 11 Books, 6 Sheets, 1 Site, and 1 Slider.  I pressed on, and while there were no Vaults, Photos, or Mails, there were 3 Newsomes and 1 Mapp.  Those of you overwhelmed with all the recent video conferencing will be happy to learn there are only 2 Meetz among us, and zero Skypes, Zooms, or GoToMeetings.

What else has changed in 15 years?  Well, social media certainly has.  (When I researched the first article in 2006, Facebook was two years old – just an infant!)  While I figured there wouldn’t be any Facebooks, Twitters, Pinterests, or Instagrams (and there weren’t!) I was interested to discover 9 Posts, 5 Storys, 3 Friends, and 1 Share.  My teenage daughters had me check for TikToks and Snapchats – nothing there.  The only thing close were 2 Snapps.  Now, if those two would get to chatting at a conference, would that count?  Not sure . . .

The last 15 years have also got me thinking about the physical library, or Library as Place.  Libraries across the country have undergone incredible physical changes in order to adapt to the modern/virtual world.  Has this trend been reflected in our surnames?  While you may be disappointed to learn that I found zero Desks, Lamps, Tables, and Chairs, I did find 2 Roofs, 2 Doores, 2 Lights, 14 Cranes, and 28 Carpenters.  Well, I guess capital projects are well represented at any rate.

So what’s in a name, or a librarian’s name in this case?  Well, according to Shakespeare’s Juliet, everything and nothing. But take heart! As I was conducting my research, I also came across 2 librarians who were Kuhl, 14 who were Wise, and 27 with special Powers.  And if all the recent technological change has left you feeling frazzled, don’t sweat it.  After all these years, our foundational commitment to basic literacy is well represented. My final searches of the current ALD revealed 80 Reeds and 72 Wrights among us!

About the Author

Christopher Raab is Associate Librarian for Archives & Special Collections at Franklin & Marshall College. He is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, and holds a Masters of Library Science and Certificate of Advanced Study from the University of Pittsburgh. Current research interests include library administration, digital preservation, and printing history.

Notes

Raab, Christopher. “No Laughing in the Library: You Name It!” College & Undergraduate Libraries, 13, no.3 (2006): 125 -126