This page is dedicated to all of the smaller written and researched assignments I completed for the Humanities course. The first section are the short response posts and commentaries I wrote on class materials and cultural events (we were required to attend three art shows, performances, or lectures outside of class every semester). These shorter writings were all focused on questions of discrimination and social justice, connecting back to my theme of intersectionality. The second section is my presentation on Natalia Goncharova from our abstract art unit. The final section is a paper I was assigned analyzing the scholarly conversation surrounding Susan Sontag.
Class Posts and Cultural Event Commentaries
“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)” by the Reduced Shakespeare Company promises to take all 30-something of Shakespeare’s plays and showcase them in 90 minutes. The show focused primarily on Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, two of the bard’s most famous works. All of the other plays were blended together into a comic swirl of cooking shows, football matches, and outrageous accents. Designed to be comedic, the show incorporated many of the raunchier elements of Shakespeare’s works: sex, gore, and edgy jokes. The show was adapted for the present too, with a Donald Trump joke or two, a #metoo reference thrown in, and much mock despair about the low intellects of today’s populace and how little true appreciation for Shakespeare is left.
This question of intellect and high culture was one that stuck with me after the show. Many people would not consider this show to be sophisticated in its rather vulgar comedy; however, many of the same people would consider Shakespeare’s original plays to be the epitome of sophistication and culture. The interesting thing about this is that the majority of the raunchy references and edgy jokes were lifted directly from the original works.
One of the reasons that this lowbrow humor was included in Shakespeare’s original plays, was to make them accessible for the audience. At the time the plays were originally written, they were a form of popular entertainment, and many cheaper seats were filled with uneducated and poorer people. Shakespeare’s work has become more and more renowned as it has gotten older, and as it has aged, it has gotten less and less accessible. After watching the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s production, my friend said to me that if she had watched the show prior to reading Shakespeare she would have understood it better and found it much more interesting. She is not alone; Shakespeare’s works are challenging to most people today.
Accessibility led me to think about intellectual snobbery. There is an inverse correlation between high culture and its general accessibility and appeal. Whatever is “popular” is considered a lower art form. For instance, comic strips are not considered as sophisticated as old Renaissance paintings and pop music is not considered as sophisticated as opera.
An internet image search of “high culture” yielded the following top hits:
A similar search of “popular culture” revealed the images below:
The high culture depicted above is more expensive to access, older, and less diverse (if you zoom in on the images) than the popular culture depicted. Very often what we consider to be academic or sophisticated has a very limited audience, and that audience is usually wealthy and white. Why do we create this hierarchy of culture? Moreover, why do schools buy into it? I’ve never had an English class that would analyze this Reduced Shakespeare Company production (and I’ve been to 7 different schools). Instead, they all opted to bring up old English literature. One could make the argument that because it is more difficult it is better educational material, but I disagree. When it takes more effort to arrive at a baseline understanding of a document, such as when we read Marx in this course, there is a lot less time to spend on digging deeper. Furthermore, when people discuss the things that they like, they are a lot more likely to be engaged in their own learning. So why don’t more schools teach us about Reduced Shakespeare Company or Drake or Arrested Development? Will students a hundred years from now be analyzing the “lowbrow” scripts of Arrested Development or memorizing Drake’s lyrics for an English test? Is there actually less value in popular culture, or is this another leftover manifestation of imperialism and our limited definitions of what it means to be fully human?
Angela Davis Reading: One of the ideas that stood out to me in Angela Davis’ piece was the idea of disproportionate punishment and race in America. She specifically mentioned how, in Mississippi, murder was not a disenfranchizable offense but miscegenation was.* I had to look up miscegenation, which, according to Google is “the interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types.” This means that in Mississippi, people can lose their right to vote over interracial relationsips. And, as Davis points out, the entire course of history can be altered when a population is prevented from voting. When people of color are prevented from voting, it not only disempowers them and allows their oppressors to keep passing racist legislation, but it also dehumanizes them and refuses them the right to be full citizens. While this is one clear, racially-motivated distinction, there are certainly other distinctions that occur.
A famous one is sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine. There’s nothing inherently more criminal about smoking your drugs rather than snorting them (**insert required disclaimer: DRUGS ARE BAD KIDS!**), but one was associated with the poor black community, and punished aggressively, while the other was associated with white people, and given more leniency.
Beyond this, Davis mentions how history impacts people––for example, the legacy of Jim Crow created generational poverty––so what are crimes which are less directly associated with color but perhaps associated with poverty? And what about other races? People in the latinx community are often targeted for driving-related offenses because they are assumed to be out of status and therefore driving without a license or insurance.
Michelle Alexander: I recently had the privilege of seeing Michelle Alexander, speak in Charlotte, and noted many similarities between her work and Davis’. For this reason, I would like to add Michelle Alexander to the panel conversation with Angela Davis.
One covertly racialized issue that Alexander explored was the impact of prison records. It’s pretty open now that mass incarceration imprisons black and brown people disproportionately––and often unjustly––but even after their release, they are continually punished. They are still under surveillance. They still carry prison records. And very few employers are enthusiastic about hiring someone with a criminal background. People of color, disproportionately convicted, thus become disproportionately jobless. Ex-convicts are also refused the right to vote and ostracized by civil society which does not respect them as fully human. In her talk, Alexander described a moment in which she herself was “No better than the police.” In interviewing a young black man, she found out about his prison record and “As soon as I knew he was a felon, I stopped listening.”
Another issue of disproportionate punishment is illegal migration. Alexander cautioned that the new wave of deportations and incarceration of immigrants is another new form of racism in disguise. I have to agree. For example, the new Safe Third Country Agreement between the US and Guatemala specifically bars South American immigrants from seeking asylum in the United States. It doesn’t say anything about Canadian, Scandanavian, or other white migrants. And, in general, immigrants of color receive stricter scrutiny upon entry and are more likely to be held or deported than white immigrants.
Alexander and Davis both played crucial roles in exposing racial injustices and disproportionate punishments during a time when America thought itself colorblind. Recently, a lot of racial issues have become more open. However, even while they were kept quiet for so long, they were there. As Alexander puts it, “I hope we will not make the mistake of thinking that we win if we drive it underground again… that getting rid of Donald Trump brings us back to some glory days. We also need to focus on the kind of soft bigotry that allows us to care more for our children than for [others’].”
Panel Participants: Angela Davis, Arthur Brooks, John Locke, and Michelle Alexander
Question 1: Mr. Brooks, in your writing you discussed combating racism and prejudice through building connections, or bridges. Ms. Davis, you focused more on structural racism. Ms. Alexander, you seem to see connections between the two. For the three of you, what impact could bridge building (aka combatting individual racism) have on issues of systemic racism such as mass incarceration or mass deportation?
Question 2: Ms. Davis, Ms. Alexander, and Mr. Locke: what rights do you believe that someone has, or should have, after they have been incarcerated? How would you envision an ideal system of criminal justice?
Question 3: What exactly is it that makes someone a human? More specifically, who is not a human, and what happens to them?
Question 4: How do we measure progress in combating racism and dehumanization? How do we know whether oppressive systems have been destroyed or merely morphed into new forms?
* This piece was written in 2008 too!
Connections: Evaluate Lawrence M. Principe’s closing remarks in “The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction” about the disconnect between modern science and the wider culture (see the bottom of p. 134). Is his pessimism exaggerated? What is the role of the humanities, if any, in fixing the problem?
I believe, as Principe does, that science has become compartmentalized, highly technical, supremely literal, and disconnected from the broader world around it. One of my favorite things about studying early modern thought was the way science and religion influenced each other. Principe writes, for example, about how early astronomy dealt primarily with circles since they were believed to be a perfect, godly shape. He further discusses how the development of scientific thought led to the rise of deism as a religion. Science was also deeply connected to history and the rest of the fields now considered “the humanities.” In Denis Diderot’s “Encyclopedia,” he shows how all the different schools of thought are interconnected. Science, in other words, used to be vastly more interdisciplinary than it is today.
I’ve always preferred interdisciplinary classes because I don’t tend to think in just one way. For example, a mint leaf is described differently by artists, chefs, biologists, chemists, writers, and botanists––but each of those descriptions is equally true and all of them coexist within the same leaf. So it is with the universe: many different explanations for our world as we know it can coexist, be equally true, and influence one another.
Interestingly, separating the disciplines has also correlated with the gendering of different academic fields: sciences are seen as predominantly masculine, and humanities are seen as more feminine. There are additional stereotypes within each of those fields as well. Who studies fashion? Who takes Africana Studies? Who becomes a chemist?
Interdisciplinary thinking, is, in my mind, a way of viewing the world as one entity instead of dividing it up between different explanations. When we move away from thinking as a whole and begin to divide the world up, we begin to divide ourselves up as well.
More recently, at least in schools I’ve been to, I’ve seen a push to bring the different disciplines back together. One example is science and art (think STEAM). Another is the Humanities 103 course and Professor Robb’s unit, which combines many different sciences with philosophy, history, language, and more. Hopefully this tide will continue to extend and push people to think much more interconnectedly in the future. It may be a stretch, but I believe that in little ways this will make society more open and just, because it will help everyone realize that there is never just one way––or one correct way––to view the world.
A Lingering Question: What is the relationship between science and religion, and why has it changed so much over time?
For this project, each student drew the name of a country at random, and then put together a mock copy of that country’s passport and learning about its relative strength as an international ID. My country was Gambia. Instead of a country, however, some people drew the word “stateless,” which led us into a discussion about what it means to have a country or not.
I greatly appreciated the Make Your Own Passport project and the reflections that it led to, despite the difficulty that always comes with confronting my privilege. There were three main themes that emerged from my table’s conversation: human rights, immigration rights, and power.
Firstly, Article 15 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states: “Everyone has the right to a nationality.” Statelessness violates this right. Are stateless people entitled to protection by a government if none claims them? Are they legally considered fully ‘human’ if they don’t have this fundamental status?
The answer, according to immigration attorney Patricia Chiriboga-Roby, is no. One child Roby worked with was stateless because he was born of a rape and the family chose to do an at-home delivery and not to register him. Another was born at home to a new immigrant and entered into the ICE database before the mother was able to petition for a birth certificate. In other cases, statelessness is caused by the disintegration of a country or by outdated (and sexist) paternity laws. If no state claims a person, then they are not entitled to receive any form of ID. Without this ID, they are stuck; they cannot vote, travel, or claim any benefits or protections from the government. They have no place from which to claim their rights, and no state technically owes anything to them, so they can be left without human rights.
Secondly, as someone who is interested in immigration law, I was bewildered by the stateless status. All of the forms I am familiar with require nationality and identification. If someone doesn’t have this, can they immigrate to another country? Can they acquire refugee status? If people don’t have a state, can they (technically) face persecution by ‘their’ government?
Once again, Roby says, the answer is no. Government documents, specifically birth certificates, function as ID and are required to immigrate anywhere. If one is stateless, they do not have a birth certificate, and they cannot prove definitively who they are. The only way that a stateless person can immigrate is as a refugee. To prove their ID for those forms, they must use secondary forms of officially-issued identification, such as school records, as well as a series of affidavits testifying to their birth and identity. After becoming a refugee, they are offered partial protection by the government of the country they moved to. However, until they become a citizen, they do not have full rights and are still, in a way, stateless. For instance, they cannot vote. In order to travel, refugees are issued travel documents (they do not yet qualify for a passport) that last for one year. Many countries, however, do not accept refugee travel papers, so they are still limited in their mobility.
Lastly, we discussed how much power a nationality confers. Among other things, my group mentioned work status, travel, voting, and government benefits. Not all nationalities hold the same power. It’s worth considering what it means to be American versus what it means to be Gambian or to be stateless. It is also worth considering where those dynamics––which we connected, in many cases, to the ongoing effects of imperialism––originate.
Roby does not see a lot of hope for these issues. “It’s not common enough that you’ll get a movement to help these people,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a solution for people who are stateless, they’re just stuck… It shouldn’t happen but it does, and there’s no way out.”
I noticed three things when looking at this page. The first thing that I noticed about this page was how white it was. The second, immediately after the first, was the violence in the bottom image: scars on buildings and buses, broken windows, trails of smoke, and the remnants of a fight on the pavement. The third thing I noticed was the caption draped across the page, reading: “My country ‘tis of thee.”
Lacking a border, the bottom image overtakes the whole page, its sky bleeding into the background behind the two top panels. The way that the sky takes over the page leaves a lot of white, empty space. In contrast to this emptiness, the top images depict a crowd of people and a man with a smoking gun. There are no black figures in the detailed top images, and there are no figures in the bottom image. Everyone on this patriotically-captioned page is white, much like the America they believe in.
It is white people who commit the violence shown on the page too––who hold the gun, who form the mob, and who (we are led to believe) smashed in the windows and cars and left wreckage strewn about.
The violence of America is clearly a key piece of information, because it is emphasized not only in the subject matter of the image but also in the artist’s stylistic choices. As the reader, my view of the image unfolds at a crazy, unnatural angle, framed by the top of a wrecked car––almost as if I were peering from a hiding place where I had taken refuge. Before me on the pavement lie several muffled heaps. They are sketched in with a few random squiggles and some shading, left unclear to communicate the shock of violence better than neater drawings could. I know from the text above that there are no deaths, but the wreckage looks like corpses. The billowing smoke and smudgy details along the right edge give the impression that the chaos continues––and maybe worsens––in the distance, all over America.
In sharp contrast, the text box moves brightly across the page like a flag, waving patriotically o’r the homeland. This cheerful flow and nationalistic words written in curly script––with “y’s” that look like something out of a Walt Disney movie, belie the image above. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe there are two parts to America. The patriotic version of America is calm and beautiful and proud. It’s the America of Walt Disney and fancy cars and the American Dream. The way we like to see ourselves stands in sharp contrast to what we were in the moment depicted here: cruel, erupting into racism, violence, and destruction.
But what if those two parts of America are interconnected? Maybe there is only one America, and that’s the one we see here. This is the America of Walt Disney and classic cars––but only for white people because it’s also the America of Jim Crow. America is a place where a white man has the power to stop violence that a hundred black people could not call off. Where he holds the key to their lives. Where people can hate other human beings and still somehow believe their country is a “sweet land of liberty.”
In reading two translations of Akhmatova’s Requiem, my group initially came to a consensus that the Anderson translation of Requiem was better than the Thomas translation, because of the way we were able to connect with it. The Anderson translation felt like poetry, while the Thomas one lacked a strong flow and tone. As a group, we decided that this was because the Thomas translation was literal – word for word – while the Anderson translation chose words that rhymed and captured the emotions of the poem better.
However, when we returned to the two works in class, my thinking changed. First, we took our analysis to our professor, he corrected us, saying that the Anderson translation was actually the word-for-word translation, while Thomas sought to capture the true tone of the poem. Additionally, another student brought up the point that this was about pain and the beautiful, flowery language od the Anderson translation actually served to cover up the rawness of the story and break it down into a neat, digestible package. The real story––the full impact of a mother mourning her son and her people during Stalin’s Terror in Soviet Russia––was lost. Rereading the two translations, I found that the Thomas one was indeed able to give a more authentic––albeit less eloquent––voice to pain.
This sparked the question of why my entire group had chosen Anderson in the first place. I think one of the reasons is because it was more intellectually comfortable. It didn’t require us to feel anything or to do the hard work of empathizing with someone who wasn’t like us. If the Thomas version of the translation was more accurate, the truth that Akhmatova shared was one of her bond with her child, of suffering, of nation, and of terrifying and arbitrary death. But, at least for most people in our class, Stalin’s Terror wasn’t something we could closely identify with. This meant that understanding––really understanding––the poem wasn’t something we could do from a quick skim or even a fairly thorough once over. We had to take the time to find her authentic words (or the most accurate translation possible) and to learn the historical context to her pain.
This is one of the hardest things to take the time to do, but I’ve found it to be the only way I can come even close to understanding someone else’s reality. As a woman, I have felt empowered when men took the time to do this work; as an ally for other groups I have tried to do this work myself. My own work on this front is still very much in progress, because there are centuries of trauma to uncover and I constantly have to re-learn and guard against my own very real biases.
The most surprising thing I learned from Akhmatova’s story was the power that poets had in Russia. They were believed to be the providers of ultimate truth and morality through their work. I do believe that there is something special about poetry, because it allows the audience to approach another person’s reality. And, if I have learned anything from Akhmatova, it is the moral imperative to try and do just that.
For this excercise I watched two movies and read several articles by Ulriche Meinhof and wrote down an intriguing moment or idea (!) and a question (?) sparked by each piece.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum
!: I believe Katharina’s aunt’s boyfriend mentioned he was a former Nazi. In the post-war era, Germany’s fous was supposedly on learning from its terrible history to reconstruct a more humane future, and I find it crazy that his Nazi status helped legitimize him and his support for Katharina to the police. It leads me to wonder how much Nazi sympathy still existed, and whether the RAF reignited some people’s authoritarian/fascist support––or perhaps whether the RAF was right to begin with, and the new government had authoritarian/fascist tendencies of its own.
?: What was it about the RAF that drew so many people to sympathize with them? Katharina only spent one night with Ludwig, but despite learning that he was a terrorist, she believed she was in love, and was willing to face up to the police for him and his cause.
The Baader-Meinhof Complex
!: If anyone reads this, I might take some fire for this one, but it amazed me how far into the story I got still sympathizing with Meinhof. I agreed with many of her points, and the violence appeared to be mostly state-initiated (at least in the movie’s portrayal). While I generally dislike violence and don’t agree with terrorism, I understood where the RAF’s use of violence came from. It definitely made me question what it means to be a terrorist. What if you have no other choice? But the RAF had a choice, right? At the end of the day, I think I would interpret the situation with all its injustices in a similar way to Meinhof, but spin it the opposite way. Instead of state violence legitimizing the RAF, I’d argue that the state does not have legitimacy in employing violence of that nature either. The impunity granted to state actors when it comes to violence scares me. The state can be wrong, and often has been. But even de-legitimizing state violence doesn’t necessarily stop it. If the state continues to use violence, how do you protest? Writing? But Meinhof wasn’t successful when she was just writing. Violence? Well I don’t believe it is right to kill or injure people. Nonviolence? Would that work in the German context? In every context? I genuinely don’t know how I would feel or what I would do if I lived in that era. From the number of sympathizers interviewed saying they would hide the gang members (again, this could just be for the movie, I’m not sure if it was real), it seems like a lot of other people were feeling frustrated and impotent and RAF capitalized on that feeling. One man’s terrorist really is another man’s freedom fighter. Or are they all just terrorists?
?: How can we learn a positive lesson from this that isn’t “terrorism is the answer” or “be hopeless, nothing will change”? What should Meinhof have done? Also, would we be doing this deep analysis in other forms of terrorism? What’s the goal/value of anaylizing the Baader-Meinhof gang specifically and generally?
Hitler Within You
!: The importance of the role of students stood out to me in this piece, especially when it mentioned that students must not just learn, but push back and criticize because their professors were from the previous generation. It seems like Meinhof relies on the stubbornness and orneriness of youth to propel us forward. I’m going to try to think for myself, question, and push back more going into the next year of college.
?: Is it true that looking at the big picture and all freedom is always better, or is it dangerous to ignore the specifics? Would it even work to try and pass such sweeping (almost *universal* @ProfessorQuillen’sunit) reforms? I personally think that it’s a hard balance to find, but we can’t be either too bogged down in specifics or too general. Everyone is an individual; everyone is also a member of everyone. How would that balance be achieved?
Human Dignity is Violable
!: The emergency laws reminded me strongly of the way the United States and Latin American governments employed states of emergency against their people. While it looked different in Germany than it did in Guatemala, the comparison adds context for why Meinhof’s point (human dignity is violable, although it shouldn’t be; especially beware the government) was so important.
?: Would it be realistic for a country to fully demilitarize? Incidentally, why was Germany and not Japan eventually allowed to regain weapons and soldiers?
Vietnam and Germany
!: I had no idea before that West Germany used its support for the Vietnam War as a negotiating tool for nuclear re-armament. I can’t say it truly shocks me though. State actors rarely act in a way that doesn’t serve their own best interests. Usually they try to preserve the status quo, if it benefits them, or to gain even more power.
?: What were the different positions on the Vietnam War in East Germany? What else factored into their take besides support for worldwide Communism (I assume)?
Everybody Talks About the Weather
!: The line “The realization that West German capital and the Iranian terror regime are closely allied was pounded into the students by the police” stood out to me. When the government proves over and over again what they are doing by their use of suppression tactics, they can cross over to relying on their monopoly on violence and their control over rights to squash protest (while proving the protestor’s points). Such a use of violence is state terror.
?: Based on the Nirumand situation: What does it mean to be “political”? What is the effect of de-politicizing or politicizing something?
**this piece has a lot more to unpack; feel free to email me for a PDF and/or a discussion**
Women in the SDS: Acting on Their Own Behalf
!: So much sexism within the movement and in the society around it! Interesting in the context of the “sexual revolution” mentioned in The Baader-Meinhof Complex. Also, Meinhof’s description of every single man thinking that the women throwing tomatoes were talking about other men reflects the current issue of white people saying “racism is bad” and “I’m not racist” without thinking about how they participate in and benefit from existing (racist – or sexist in the Meinhof case) institutions.
?: A line that stood out here was “The reactions of the men at the conference and of the still friendly reporters showed that entire trainloads of tomatoes will have to be thrown at appropriate targets for the message to really sink in.” What would Meinhof have to say about our current discussions on allies and allyship? Would she believe it was possible to be an ally? I recently read an open letter to Davidson College’s white faculty from a professor of color and it reminded me to question the idea of allyship for myself. Do I believe it’s possible to be an ally? What is the best way for a man to get involved with womens’ issues for positive change or a white person to get involved in eradicating racism?
American slavery, is already under-studied, but I never knew by how much; in a lecture I recently learned that African slavery was only part of the picture. Native Americans didn’t all die from smallpox. Rather, they were enslaved at nearly the same rate as Africans. As is typical of indigenous history, their enslavement didn’t make it into American textbooks. As Andrés Reséndez stated in this year’s Kelley Lecture, we picture “neat historical boxes… Natives died, and Africans were enslaved.” In reality though, between 2.5 and 5 million indigenous Americans were enslaved by colonizers and their descendants throughout the Americas, beginning 26 years before the first recorded smallpox case.
The brutal conditions conditions and racist justifiations we recognize from African slavery were also true of this “other” slavery. But when the 13th amendment passed, indigenous slaves in the US were excluded from its protections. Native Americans did not become full citizens until the 1920s.
I am infuriated that I didn’t know any of this before the lecture. And if I didn’t know that as someone who has actively studied indigenous history, then the average American student has no clue at all. Why and how was this story covered up? The way schools teach about indigenous history––if they mention it at all-–it is as though everyone died of smallpox and then the survivors were finished off on the Trail of Tears. Native American culture is not restricted to the dead past, though, and it is clear from these statistics that the US government owes them the same visibility and justice that it owes to people of African descent.
Why and how was the story of Native American enslavement covered up? Was it just forgotten? The fact that everyone was able to ignore or forget the deaths of 2.5-5 million people is astounding. It points to a continued problem of representation and acceptance of the Native American community. Even today, Native Americans aren’t seen as full humans of full citizens, though they technically hold that status.
Today, Native Americans continue to live in unfair conditions. For example, the Navajo Nation has lived without water access for decades––which blatantly goes against basic human rights. The era of COVID-19 has brought this into sharp relief. In COVID-19 tracking, their infections and deaths are listed under the “other” category. Reservations have fewer hospitals by area than West Virginia. By a lot. Recognition of historical and contemporary Native American struggles needs to come very quickly, and so does funding!
Natalia Goncharova Artist Presentation
In exploring abstract art, I once again encountered extreme
discrimination. Women, though the primary subjects–and objects–of
paintings, have faced many obstacles as painters. So, naturally, I
wanted to explore a female artist. Natalia is sadly often studied only
as a counterpart to her husband. I wanted to show that she deserves
recognition in her own right.
Download information sheet PDF here.