Creativity and Community in COVID-time

I wrote the short piece for our Provost’s Newsletter. Though a little in-house for broader dissemination, I do think it’s important that people know how hard and how well faculty and students and working during what has been an extraordinary 9 month period. And also important to recognize that creativity and community aren’t reserved for times of leisure. Now more than ever we need to be artists with our own lives and be committing ourselves to community with others and common good for all.

Mundanely titled: “Good News Around Campus”

In the mad rush we have come to call “COVID-time,” I’m used to describing my own life or hear others describe their lives as “busy” or “frantic.” We’re all “dog-paddling” or keeping our collective “nose out of the water.” Always rushed during the school year, COVID seems to have added an extra gear that gets the wheel of our days spinning yet more rapidly, even as we wait endlessly for a Thanksgiving, a day that the seems, like a point in Zeno’s paradox, to be ever closer and yet just as far away as ever.

Even so, when I’ve had a minute to pause and observe in the middle of all piles of things I must get done, I’ve also been struck by the ways our lives seem to be continuously marked by two other, less frantic words: creativity and connection. Although COVID has been an experience of tremendous and widespread loss—of our normal ways of doing things at which we excelled, of our usual times of rest or worship, and even for many of us the loss of friends or family–it has also given opportunities for newness and, surprisingly, for connection. As I observe faculty and students at work I am constantly impressed with adaptability and creativity in their finding new things to do or their efforts to do old things in new ways. In the Department of Communication, faced with the inability to cover sports events in his photojournalism class, David Dixon, co-chair of the department, has assigned his students to cover seasonal changes and campus beauty as a different form of journalism. In English, students in Young Adult Literature are using digital tools to explore the moral universe of Young Adult texts, and in Writing for Social Change students are developing digital writing campaigns to promote learning about issues such as mass incarceration, immigration, and gender in the church.

I’ve perhaps been most impressed with the ways in which faculty and students have creatively promoted human connection and community even in the midst of a world of social distancing. Kudos to Valerie Lemmon, Professor of Psychology and Assistant Dean of Business, Education, and Social Sciences for working with Stephanie Patterson to develop and alternative form of a school meeting so that faculty to greet each other, talk with each other pray for one another outside the normal confines of a business meeting. The Department of Education has celebrated the new book just published by Obed Mfum Mensah via zoom. The Messiah Council on Family Relations from HDFS sponsored a cooking show featuring student Tariah Rozier demonstrating her skills at cooking Halloween treats. The COMM department bridged the curriculum and social connection by having the Event Planning class create virtual events for students and faculty that would promote community in the department. Education students have been stepping up to fill critical substitute teacher needs in the region, an effort that helps our local schools and their students and teachers while also enhancing their experience as teachers.

There are, to be sure, so many ways in which we may find COVID-time constraining, preventing us from doing what we might otherwise prefer to be doing. But I also discern enabling constraints, all the ways in which the difficulties of our moment are pushing us to a creativity, and to a community, that we might not have otherwise realized. In all these ways and many, many more, I see faculty and students responding to constraints with creativity that sustains community. A blessing even in the midst of busyness.

Alice Dunbar Nelson–Poet of Harrisburg

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve gotten more interested in the specific connections of the “New Negro Renaissance” that I took up in my book to my own specific location in Harrisburg.  While we tend to think of cultural movements as emanating and developing only in the major metropolitan centers (and so we equate the New Negro Renaissance Alice_Dunbar-Nelsonwith Harlem, or at most with Harlem and Chicago), it was in truth a national and even international movement, that touched culture in many different times and places.  Harrisburg, I learned a few years ago, was a well known center for jazz and a regular stop for big bands and jazz and blues musicians such as Cab Calloway and many other large and lesser lights.

This past week my colleague Jean Corey sent me a clipping (which she received via Alice Dunbar nelsonHarrisburg historian Calobe Jackson) regarding Alice Dunbar Nelson.  I had absolutely zero inkling that Dunbar Nelson was associated with Harrisburg at all, but she apparently lived here for at least a couple of years after her second marriage.  The attached clip from the Harrisburg Telegraph notes her wedding to Robert J. Nelson who worked in the state government.  There are a fairly large number of references to Alice Dunbar and Dunbar-Nelson in the Harrisburg Telegraph, even after she apparently left the city–references to speaking engagements at Harrisburg churches and the like.  I’ll have to follow up further later.

Gwendolyn Bennett of Harrisburg

Although I’ve published my book on the Harlem Renaissance, it remains one of the pleasures of the scholarly life to continue to learn and discover yet more about things I gwendoline-bennettfeel I know quite well.  One thing that has continued to interest me is the ways in which the “Harlem” Renaissance extended and had connections to many places, including my home town of Harrisburg PA.  I wrote briefly about Esther Popel Shaw’s connection to Harrisburg, and discovered, or was reminded (one of those things I think I knew, but never followed up on), that Gwendolyn Bennett, one of the most significant poets of the younger generation had a Harrisburg connection.  According to this clip noted by Harrisburg Historian, Calobe Jackson, Jr., she made the honor roll in 1917.

Gwendolyn Bennett, Honor studentAt this point I haven’t been able to determine much more than these scant biological connections, but I am intrigued with the role that regions some distance from our cultural centers end up playing a role, major or minor, in the lives of our writers and in the larger movements that they create.  I discovered a similar connection to Alice Dunbar Nelson that I’ll note in a later post.

Review of Goodbye Christ?–American Historical Review

It was nice to find another review of Goodbye Christ?, and the first I’ve seen in a print journal of some substance.  Tiffany Ruby Patterson from Vanderbilt University does a very thorough overview of the book and has some kind words to say.  Unfortunately behind a paywall for now, but you can find it here if you have access.  A couple of short excerpts:

In Goodbye Christ? Christianity, Masculinity, and the New Negro Renaissance, Peter Kerry Powers has written a deeply researched and fine-grained study of how issues of masculinity and Christianity are entangled in the writing and worldviews of African American intellectuals in the twentieth century. He argues that the New Negro Renaissance was not a secular period as some have argued but one where secularism and Christian beliefs competed in shaping the struggle for leadership. Instead he demonstrates that the period was a moment when “Christian religious practices provide the backdrop, characters, imagery, and theme of most of the important work of the Renaissance, even when they are deployed to resist the religious traditions that they reference” (15)

This study also speaks to the work that still needs to be done on Christianity, non-Christian belief systems in America, gender matters, and intellectuals.  Goodbye Christ? is grounded in excellent research and is meticulous in its arguments.  it is a must read for scholars of religion, gender, race, sexuality, and intellectual leadership.

So, must read. Do.

“Beyond The Review: Reading African American Literature and Religion”

Langston

was very happy this week to publish a new review essay in The Cresset for their Lent 2019 edition. On the one hand publishing has not lost its charge, perhaps because I do it so rarely.  But beyond that it was good to see in print my meditations on being part of a mini-movement in literary and cultural studies that has been taking religion in/and African American lit more seriously.  Besides my efforts on the Harlem Renaissance, there are many other, probably more important contributions going on, and I look at three recent works by Wallace Best, M. Cooper Harris, and Josef Sorett just to give a sense of the importance of what’s going on, besides my evaluation of the works at hand.  I also liked the challenge of trying to write 

about academic literary criticism for a non-specialist audience, and to take up the issue of why lay readers ought to read criticism, even against their better judgment.  Not an easy task, and one at which I think I only partially succeeded, but which the editor liked enough to print at any rate.  A little flavor of this aspect of the review:

harriss

“Unlike breathing or the beating of the heart, reading is a skill developed within particular cultures, each with its own values and peculiarities, and each with its own notion of excellence. At its best, literary criticism models forms of readerly virtuosity that stretch our imagination beyond the straightforward pleasures of enjoying a good story. The best criticism allows us to know literature within a cultural ecosystem of reference and connection. In the normal course of things, we pluck books from the Barnes & Noble bookshelf or the Amazon algorithm as we might pluck up a flower in a field, enjoying (or not) the pleasure of the text. Literary criticism reads the role that flower plays in the field. It considers the ways it depends on or perhaps destroys other features of the field, or perhaps the ways other cultural ecosystems consider it a weed or an invasive species to be eradicated. SorettWhile reading literary criticism is not always a walk in the park, doing so can make our pleasures more aware and engaged, delivering enhanced or other pleasures, much as we might take pleasure in not only the scent of the air, but in being able to name the flowers and the trees and understand our relationship to them and theirs to one another.”

You can read the rest of my review here…

 

Presentation–St. Stephen’s Cathedral–12/2 & 12/9 2018

I had the great good pleasure of presenting on Goodbye Christ? the past couple of Sundays at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. My slides used in the presentation are embedded below, though I offer them mostly as a demonstration of my astonishingly limited visual imagination. Some of the slides don’t stand easily on their own and require more explication than I care to include at the moment, but maybe I’ll work on it later. And I’ll be glad to respond to any questions in comments sections below.

One thing I was pleased to hunt up and discover for this presentation were the tangential but still interesting connections of the City of Harrisburg to the Great Migration and the cultural currents of the New Negro/Harlem Renaissance, stuff I hadn’t looked in to at all in my book proper.

One thing that can’t be represented here is the great pleasure it was to lead discussion in a church whose people are interested in knowing more, and desirous of doing more to make the world a better place through educating themselves and others. A good place to worship, and belong.

 

Esther Popel Shaw, Poet of Harrisburg

YoungEsther

I didn’t really look into the poetry and other writings of Esther Popel Shaw while working on Goodbye Christ?, but digging around for the ways the Harlem Renaissance may connect to the City of Harrisburg for a presentation I’m doing at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, I discovered her biographical connection to the region.  Born in Harrisburg and the first African American to attend Dickinson, she left the area to attend Howard University after not being allowed to live on Campus. She eventually worked on various literary and political journals in Harlem for a while and was a teacher for much of her life.  I hesitate to say these poems are representative since I don’t know enough about all her writing, but a nice collection can be found at The Beltway Poetry Quarterly.  I reproduce one of them here.  The ironic juxtaposition of American (and/or Christian) ideals with the realities of racial violence was a common trope of literature of the period

FLAG SALUTE

“I pledge allegiance to the flag”—
They dragged him naked
Through the muddy streets,
A feeble-minded black boy!
And the charge? Supposed assault
Upon an aged woman!
“Of the United States of America”—
One mile they dragged him
Like a sack of meal,
A rope around his neck,
A bloody ear
Left dangling by the patriotic hand
Of Nordic youth! (A boy of seventeen!)
“And to the Republic for which it stands”—
And then they hanged his body to a tree,
Below the window of the county judge
Whose pleadings for that battered human flesh
Were stifled by the brutish, raucous howls
Of men, and boys, and women with their babes,
Brought out to see the bloody spectacle
Of murder in the style of ’33!
“(Three thousand strong, they were!)
“One Nation, Indivisible”—
To make the tale complete
They built a fire—
What matters that the stuff they burned
Was flesh—and bone—and hair—
And reeking gasoline!
“With Liberty—and Justice”—
They cut the rope in bits
And passed them out,
For souvenirs, among the men and boys!
The teeth no doubt, on golden chains
Will hang
About the favored necks of sweethearts, wives,
And daughters, mothers, sisters, babies, too!
“For ALL!”

–Esther Popel Shaw

Review: Marilynne Robinson, The Givennness of Things

The Givenness of Things: EssaysThe Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My review of Marilynne Robinson recently appeared on Reading Religion. The opening…

A friend once complained to me that he thought Marilynne Robinson’s novels were “slow.” Slightly aghast, my response was that glaciers are slow, but they dig deep. They gather force patiently through time, and their full effects are seen only as they recede. They rewrite continents.

This comparison is apt for Robinson’s collection, The Givenness of Things. The pieces vary by occasion. They are written for disparate audiences, sometimes as commencement speeches, sometimes as invited lectures on a chosen or assigned topic. Necessarily, then, the reader does not quickly arrive at a neatly formulated thesis. However, over time, a sustained argument comes into view. Points of emphasis build through repetition; interesting asides are picked up and elaborated. Robinson’s thinking gathers force less by the secure scaffolding of an academic essay than by the gathered observations of human beings thinking and acting in these early hectic years of the 21st century.

Or failing to think. Robinson is convinced that we Americans have become a forgetful people. The list of things that we have forgotten is long: we have forgotten the legacy of the Reformation; we have forgotten the value of the common good manifested in things like publicly funded libraries and schools; we have forgotten the principles of the Civil Rights Movement; we have forgotten the intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual capacities of the common person; and we have forgotten that our minds are more than our brains. Fundamentally, we have forgotten ourselves. In the process, Robinson says, we have forgotten God.

You can read the full review here: http://readingreligion.org/books/give….

View all my reviews

Rybczynski–Home: A Short History of an Idea

Home: A Short History of an IdeaHome: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rybczynski, Witold. Home : A Short history of an Idea. 1986

I’ve been troubling over the notion of home since our Center for Public Humanities’ excellent Humanities Symposium on the topic this past February, partially out of the interest to punch up the substance of my own presentation on the idea of Home and the Pratice of the Humanities. Partly because I’ve been troubled by the contradictions between the ethic of welcoming the stranger and alien that is so central to Christian (and Jewish, and Islamic) codes of ethics, and the fact that Christians proved to be among the most enthusiastic supporters of our country’s recent draconian policies against immigrants and refugees. A people who takes pride in family values has found it relatively easy nevertheless to support the destruction of the children and families of other people (even their fellow Christians’), and to support as well as a dramatic reduction in aid to identifiable refugees, to say nothing of the aggressive expulsion of wayfarers among us who are tagged as “illegal” because they were born somewhere else. Less painfully, I’ve been mulling over what it means for an institution of higher education to talk about itself as a family, for us to use language about our “home institution,” for us to think of our disciplines as “homes”, to have departmental homes, or indeed what it means for us in the humanities when we say we no longer feel “at home” in higher ed as it is currently practiced. I plunged into Rybczynski with these questions in mind. He did not answer my specific questions, since they are my questions and not his; he did, however, help me think a little harder about the idea of home and where it comes from.

Rybczynski’s book is, as the title of the book suggests, a history of the idea of home. At least it is partially that. In the first half of the book, Rybczynski makes clear that our current conceptions of home and all that it entails are cultural and historical constructs that tell us something about our period and not about a timeless entity. This kind of thing is obviously a given of cultural history for the past fifty or so years, but it was still good to think through this given our current obsessions of home, as well as with the dramatic transformations of home as a lived practice given changes in economy, entertainments, religion, and the like. Rybczynski approaches this topic as an architectural historian, and so much of his attention is given to space and how it is constructed, decorated (or not), and used. Among other things, he points out that the notion of the house as a private and intimate space for the nuclear family is a modern development, really almost unknown in the late middle ages, and only gradually developing through the early modern to Victorian period. Among other things, according to Rybczynski, there were no private spaces in medieval houses, even among the propertied classes—the space of the merchants or other clerics home itself being shared by servants and family alike, usually in one or at most two rooms that served as kitchen, dining room, office, and bedroom depending on the time of day.

For Rybczynski, this collective feature of the home reflected a certain cast of the late medieval or early modern mind, one that was not oriented toward intimate self-consciousness or toward private relations but towards one’s assigned place in the public world.

What mattered then was the external world, and one’s place in it. Life was a public affair, and just as one did not have a strongly developed self-consciousness, one did not have a room of one’s own. It was the medieval mind, not the absence of comfortable chairs or central heating, that explains the austerity of the medieval home. (35)

For Rybczynski, then, there is not real need for our modern conception of the home, or for our modern development of homes and neighborhoods with elaborate private spaces, precisely because our houses (and later homes) reflect the nature of the culture in which we are living. It was only later, as the consciousness of the modern European turned toward individuation that we began to conceive of the need for smaller, intimate, and more private spaces. Rybczynski put a great deal of emphasis on the development of the idea of “home” to cultural and architectural developments among the Dutch that gradually—given the relative power the Dutch exercised economically and culturally in the modern period—influenced much of the rest of northern Europe and England. For Rybczynski, the Dutch and those they influenced gave us the dominant idea of home that continues to influence how we think of it today. As he puts it, “[‘Home’] brought together the meanings of house and of household, of dwelling and of refuge, of ownership and of affection. ‘Home’ meant the house, but also everything that was in it and around it, as well as the people, and the sense of satisfaction and contentment that all these conveyed. You could walk out of the house, but you always returned home” (62). Moreover, this transformation accompanied a new sense that the home was exclusively for the nuclear family unit, and that unit was housed in a separate private space separate from and independent of the rest of society in some crucial respects. “[In the Bourgeois period] the house was no longer only a shelter against the elements, a protection against the intruder—although these remained important functions—it had become the setting for a new compact social unit: the family. With the family came isolation, but also family life and domesticity” (77).

To some degree, after establishing the new power of the idea of “home in the 17th through 19th centuries, Rybczynski’s book becomes it’s second half a more straightforward analysis of the changes to houses themselves. That it, it becomes less a cultural history of the idea of the home and more an architectural history of the houses that provide the material ground out of which homes are imagined. He provides extended discussions of the development of the idea of comfort in the Victorian period, and on the notion that houses should be efficient in the industrial period of the late 19th and early 20th century, and he reflects extensively on the potential meanings of various kinds of décor and architectural transformations in the latter part of the 20th century, most of which he seems to see as negative developments. But in these later chapters there is very little discussion of the ways in which different kinds of home/houses reflect different dimensions of being human in the modern and late modern periods of the 20th century. To the degree that they do not, I found them less compelling, as if the thread of the narrative had been dropped and Rybczynski was not sure of what to make about 20th century and the kinds of people who made the homes that they did. This is a flaw in the book’s conception and execution as a whole, it seems to me. And I have read other books, using or building on or disputing with Rybczynski that do a better job of thinking through the cultural formations of houses and homes in the late 20th century. Nevertheless, people interested in the ways that the structure and design of houses has changed over time and reflect the times in which they are built will find the entire book a worthwhile read.

View all my reviews