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Monday, February 10, 2014

Dr. Anthony Badger delivers Belle McWilliams Lecture in U.S. History

February 6, 2014

Dr, Anthony Badger, the Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge University and Master of Clare College, delivered the Belle McWilliams Lecture in U.S. History this evening, speaking on “The Lessons of the New Deal: Has Obama Learned the Right Ones?” The lecture was also sponsored by the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities.

Dr Anthony Badger speakingDr. Badger was introduced by Dr. Colin Chapell, who as a student at Cambridge had benefitted from the mentoring of Dr. Badger. Dr. Badger quipped that he was delighted to have been asked to leave cold England for America’s “sunny South” (the on-campus temperature when he spoke was about 25 degrees).

There were certain parallels between 1933 and 2009 when two presidents took office — financial crisis, widespread economic distress, even an international conference (in London) to try to arrive at solutions. While still a candidate, Barack Obama, along with his advisers, had been a close student of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, because he and they recognized those parallels. (Dr. Badger noted that shortly after the election of 2008, a news service notified him that Obama had been reading his book, FDR: The First Hundred Days, and so had Peyton Manning, rated as the 14th-most-intellectual football player in the U.S.) Dr. Badger said that Obama had learned several lessons from the New Deal that he intended to apply to the 2009 situation, including the need to spend vast sums of money and not (as Roosevelt had done in 1937) to ease off on that spending too soon.

But in other ways, Obama did not benefit from Roosevelt’s experience. Roosevelt went on from victory in 1932 to win overwhelmingly in 1936, but Obama had a narrow victory in 2012. Roosevelt's New Deal was the defining political episode of the twentieth century, setting the pattern for a vast array of governmental actions to influence economic conditions. Roosevelt even improved on his majorities in Congress in 1936 as well as winning the presidency in a landslide. Obama's administrations have been beset by gridlock, with little to show for accomplishment, and in later elections his party lost its majority in the House of Representatives and its super-majority in the Senate.

What went wrong? Toward the end of his lecture, after considering other differences between Roosevelt and Obama, Dr. Badger suggested that one of the lessons to be learned from Roosevelt's success was “Be lucky.” He had explained earlier that Roosevelt indeed had luck on his side much of the time. In the banking crisis, for example, Roosevelt’s policies were a gamble, but they worked. Neither he nor his advisors had any real plans when he assumed office. A plan quickly cobbled together with the help of Herbert Hoover’s Treasury Department officials existed in only one copy when introduced into the House, which approved it unanimously 43 minutes later (the Senate, with some dissent, took a bit longer). There was no “Plan B,” Dr. Badger said, nowhere to go if the plan failed. In his first “fireside chat” Roosevelt charmed the American people into believing it was safe to put money back into the banks, and it worked. Moreover, Roosevelt for a long time did not have to worry particularly about foreign affairs, which allowed him to concentrate on domestic issues.

Obama has not always had luck on his side. Dr. Badger noted that he did have good fortune in having to run against opponents who created problems for themselves, such as John McCain’s selecting Sarah Palin as a running mate without adequate vetting, and Mitt Romney’s disparaging remarks about 47% of the American voters.

More often, Obama’s luck has gone the other way. Dr. Badger maintained that Obama did save the banks. But concentrating on saving the banks created much resentment, and Dr. Badger asked, “How do you get credit for what didn’t happen?” Although the administration boasted of saving two million jobs, that did not translate as two million jobs created. Roosevelt’s policies employed 250,000 within the first six weeks and millions more in later years. They subsidized farmers and placed a moratorium on foreclosures on mortgages, but Obama’s policies did little to get money into the hands of the public and financial institutions found ways to continue foreclosures.

The situation in the 1930s was so desperate, Dr. Badger maintained, that for quite some time afterward, majorities in both parties felt they had to support the principles of the New Deal (witness Wendell Wilkie in 1940, for example). After 2008 conservatives have felt little or no need at all to support Obama’s policies, maintaining that they impede rather than stimulate recovery and are probably unconstitutional anyway. Polarization is rampant and politicians delight in finding “hot spot” issues on which skewer their opponents. Dr. Badger noted some 250 failures in the Senate to force closure on issues; what used to be unthinkable has become routine.

It is easy enough to blame Republicans for polarization and gridlock, Dr. Badger said, but he also said that Democrats have forgotten how to legislate. Obama has not worked out detailed programs, and what Dr Badger called laziness in organizing campaigns has led to embarrassing defeats at the polls for the Democrats (as with Ted Kennedy). The patrician Roosevelt never forgot that it is impossible to over-flatter the American public, but Obama is perceived as lacking empathy with common people. Roosevelt restored public confidence in the government. As late as 1973, a survey revealed that 75% of the public had faith that the federal government would do the right thing. Already by 1990 that figure had dwindled to 25% and now, Dr. Badger said, it stands at about 10%. Dr Badger judged that one of Obama’s fundamental errors was in staking too much on healthcare reform at the beginning of his administration; Roosevelt, he said, knew that some programs — such as Social Security — had to wait until later in his administration.

Dr Badger ended his lecture on a gloomy note by saying that since the Civil War, no American president has had a successful second term. He sees little hope that things will be different in the future. The issue that seems to be insoluble, he said, is that of entitlements, on which public opinion and party policies diverge widely. Roosevelt could defend Social Security in 1935 on a firm moral ground — that workers were entitled to benefit from the payments they made into the system. There is little agreement these days on the morality of entitlements.

Dr Badger’s book, FDR: The First Hundred Days, was chosen by Prime Minister Gordon Brown as his book of the year for 2008 and is said to have been influential in shaping his response to the recession in the United Kingdom. His other books include Prosperity Road: The New Deal, Tobacco, and North Carolina; North Carolina and the New Deal; and The New Deal: The Depression Years 1933-1940.

In 2009 Gordon Brown appointed him chair of the Kennedy Memorial Trust, which provides full funding for six to eight British post-graduate students to study at either Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Since 2011 Dr. Badger has been serving as the “colonial files tsar” to oversee the review and transfer to the public domain of the “migrated archives” for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. These are defined by the (UK) National Archives as “a collection of files that were sent to the United Kingdom from some former British territories generally at the time of their independence. The files contain a range of material relating to former colonial administrations, including some material of a sensitive nature covering policy, security, intelligence and other issues.”

Maurice Crouse
Professor Emeritus, Department of History
The University of Memphis



Dr. Peter Dauvergne:

“Eco-Business: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability”

November 7, 1963


Dr. Peter Dauvergne, Director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, delivered a captivating and informative lecture to the guests of the Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities on the topic of how big-name businesses advertise their products as “eco-friendly” in an attempt to market to a greater number of unaware customers.  The lecture took place on Thursday evening, November 7, at the University of Memphis University Center Theatre.

Dr. Dauvergne began by pointing out how on the surface, the products promoted by these companies appear enticing. Governments and advocacy groups are eagerly partnering to lend the companies credibility. Yet, as Dr. Dauvergne revealed, big-brand sustainability with government backing is actually creating new and perhaps even greater exposing greater dangers for people and the planet. In a compelling account rich, with intriguing evidence, and important warnings, he demonstrated  how brand companies are taking over and turning the concept of sustainability and  "eco-business"  into a tool to enhance corporate control and growth, as well as enhancing corporate responsibility. In a global economy, fraught with volatility and risks, eco-business is proving highly valuable for business, but can fundamentally limit the potential for deeper solutions– ones that challenge and transform rather than reinforce and legitimize mass retail and discount consumerism.

In his talk, Dr. Dauvergne pointed out how some companies advertise that their products will be less harsh on the environment than a competing company. However, it turns out that sometimes all they are doing is simply packaging their goods more compactly, and thereby, using less packaging material to transport their products. This way, not only do they portray a false sense of environmental awareness to the consumers, but also save largely on transportation and packaging costs. He emphasized that recent book explains the tactics used by these big businesses to convince the general public that their products are friendlier to the environment. Through these tactics, new booming businesses are able to establish notably respectable names for themselves within a very short period of existence.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dr. Kevin Mumford:
Beyond the Closet: Reinventing African American Gay History, 1963-1988”
October 25, 2013

Dr. Kevin Mumford, Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, delivered a phenomenal lecture to the guests of the Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities on the topic of a new framework for understanding the past of African American gay men.  The lecture took place on Thursday evening, October 24, at the University of Memphis University Center Theatre.

Dr. Mumford began by stating that just before the full brunt of the AIDS crisis, a creative and courageous brotherhood of activists, writers, and artists joined together in local organizations, churches, and clubs to make their own history. The subject of black gay men has been shrouded in secrecy or deemed too controversial. Even today, African American history textbooks ignore the contributions of black gay men according to Mumford. The recent push for gay marriage has pushed sexual equality into the center of debate, and yet LGBT scholarship continues to marginalize people of color. How were black gay men viewed, and how did they identify? Where did black gay men find community, and what did they experience? What did black gay men want, and how did they achieve it?

Mumford expertly attempted to hint at possible answers to these questions and many more throughout his lecture. He explained the struggle through which gay black man had to go through in society during times of the civil war. He pointed out how gay black men were forced into hiding their identity since disclosing such information was considered taboo by society. These people were often the subject of humor and were not granted any rights or responsibilities which they would otherwise entail. More often, these men hid their sexuality in order to receive the little rights African Americans had at the time. Dr. Mumford pointed out how an African American author can go as much as getting his work established and even published on giving more rights to gay black men. However, if it was openly found that the author himself was gay, suddenly the audience changed their viewpoint of his works, even though essentially nothing has changed. Just the fact that the author identified with the gay community was enough to shun the viewers’ minds of any positive perceptions. Mumford claimed this is one main reason why gay black men kept their identity hidden.

Mumford’s talk went further into discussing topics of the gay community today and how there is still numerous injustices and prejudices which occur as a result of the sexuality of these men. Dr. Mumford described how conceptions of respectable masculinity influenced the emergence of black gay identities, arguing that the sexual revolution stimulated defensiveness or homophobia, as well as increased erotic freedom in black America. He also looked at the lives of key, understudied activists to explore the intricate intersections among community, politics, and identity.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Dr. Robert Darnton - “Digitize and Democratize: Libraries, Books, and the Digital Future”

Dr. Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Libraries delivered the second lecture of the 2013-214 Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities Season at the University Of Memphis University Center Theater on October 10, 2013 to a gathering over just over 200 guests.

Darnton opened his remarks by relating the history of Harvard’s library.  John Harvard was a great benefactor to the University, donating large sums to the library.  So, the school began as a small college with a huge library.  The library became so prominent that the college ended up assuming the name given to the library in recognition of its generous benefactor.  Darnton noted, “The library is the heart and soul of the University, and added, “In the same way that public libraries are the heart and soul of communities.”

Darnton, along with many others, was responsible for launching the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) on April 18, 2013.  What he and his collaborators had hoped to be a major news event, the launch was lost in the coverage of the tragic “Boston Marathon Bombings. The mission of the DPLA is to serve everyone. Darnton feels that the public should have access to all knowledge, especially things that are produced with public funds. The DPLA is working towards getting as much information to the public as possible.

Darnton gave some examples of how some libraries contain so much knowledge, but they do not want to share it with the public. He discussed how The Great Library of Alexandria was a collection of all the books in the world, yet it was closed off to the public. He said that as such, it was not really a library. He also spoke of how great universities such as Oxford and Cambridge limited the information in their libraries to “the privileged few.” The universities have huge gates with spikes at the top to keep “the outsiders” from getting in.   Darnton illustrated his point by sharing a picture of him with a friend when he attended Oxford The re showing them going through one of the passageways that the students would use to avoid getting locked out at the main gates.   Darnton stressed that libraries should “digitize and democratize instead of walling themselves off.”

Darnton is encouraging authors to participate in an “authors’ alliance,” where-by authors give up their copyright to the DPLA.  Darnton jokingly explained, “I published a book in 1968. I make enough from it to take my wife to dinner every two years, if she pays for her dinner.” His point is authors make so little profit on their publications, they may benefit from the alliance.

Dr. Darnton concluded his remarks by explaining that the DPLA cannot make everything available at once, but it will eventually provide the public with knowledge. This is just the beginning, and there is still a lot of work to do.

For more information about the Digital Public Library of America, visit http://dp.la/

Jasmine Morton - MOCH Honors Intern

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Dr. Laurent Dubois Delivers the Sesquicentennial Lecture In History
As the Opening of the 2013-2014 Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities Season



Dr. Laurent Dubois delivered the Memphis Sesquicentennial Lecture for 2013-2014 on the evening of September 26 in the theater of the University Center, speaking on “The Banjo: Roots, Routes, and Ideas about ‘America.’” The lecture was the opening event of the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities 2013-2014 season.

Before the lecture, Randal Morton performed on the 5-string banjo, playing pieces in several styles of 3-finger picking (including, by popular request, the legendary Foggy Mountain Breakdown). Randal has been a banjo picker since he was about twelve years old, and he won the title of National Bluegrass Champion in Winfield, Kansas, on his 21st birthday. He and his twin brother Greg (a championship guitar player) were members of the Don Ho Show in Hawaii for a time. Randal is a prominent figure in Memphis bluegrass music, but Greg now lives in Tucson, Arizona. 

Dr. Tom Nenon, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a former director of the Marcus W. Orr Center, welcomed the audience and outlined the purpose and programs of the center. He asked Randal to perform one more selection before turning the introduction of the speaker over to Dr. Andrew Daily of the Department of History.

Dr. Dubois began by explaining the projected image that was the backdrop for the first part of his lecture, a banjo belonging to Pete Seeger and inscribed with the words “THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS HATE AND FORCES IT TO SURRENDER.” It was similar to the slogan “This machine kills Fascists" which Woody Guthrie put on his guitar in 1943, and was ultimately inspired by signs from industrial plants during World War II. He noted that the banjo has been constantly “re-invented” over the centuries, but with each reinvention presenting the instrument as being “old.”

Undoubtedly of African origin, the banjo in America today is almost always played by white musicians and is a symbol of country music, especially of bluegrass. Dr. Dubois noted that his approach would be centered on the Caribbean, his area of scholarly research. The banjo was mentioned first in the Caribbean, long before North American references, and the Caribbean received vastly more slaves from western Africa than did the mainland.

There was a great variety of stringed instruments in western Africa, including the xalam and the akonting, but a constant feature of them was a drum head, often a gourd with an animal hide as a sounding board, and often with one string shorter than the others. (European instruments had at one time used similar instruments, but diverged toward the use of wooden bodies at an early date.)

Banjo-like instruments were mentioned in Jamaica as early as 1687 by Sir Hans Sloane, who described several Jamaican instruments the left. The earliest North American reference to the banjo was in the New-York Weekly Journal in 1736, but the newspaper did not include an illustration.

A close approach to the banjo as it is known today came in a painting done in Beaufort County, South Carolina, in the late 1700s or early 1800s (the date is uncertain). One of the most commonly reproduced paintings that show slaves on a plantation, it includes a rather detailed rendering of a seated slave playing the banjo. (A very similar painting, possibly a copy and modification of this one but with less detail about the banjo, is in the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C.) The instrument has only four strings, but one of them is short, being pegged on the neck about halfway to the bridge. The performer is probably finger-picking, but possibly strumming or using a technique like clawhammer or frailing.

One of the most important instruments in documenting the history of the banjo in the American area is a Haitian banza, which was collected in 1841 and sent to a museum in Paris. Parts of it were discovered by a scholar in 1997 in separate boxes, and the scholar eventually realized that the parts belonged together to make a complete instrument. 

Advertisements in the colonial period for runaway slaves sometimes mentioned that they were banza or “banjer” players. The association of the instrument with black performers was strengthened by the rise of blackface minstrelsy in mid-19th-century America. Dr. Dubois said that groups like Christy’s Minstrels created a craze for the banjo, such that eventually there were banjo choirs all over the United States, nearly all of them consisting of white performers. But after the Civil War minstrelsy was sometimes performed by black musicians. Some of the music could be subversive, such as “Uncle Gabriel,” which told of the execution of a slave named Gabriel who was “chief of the insurgents” in an aborted slave insurrection in Henrico County, Virginia, in 1800. It contained the refrain “Hard times in Old Virginny.”

The banjo eventually became a common instrument in Appalachian music, where it linked up with the tradition of balladry from the British Isles. Bluegrass music, in which the banjo is virtually mandatory as a lead instrument, developed after 1945. Dr. Dubois noted that the emergence of bluegrass corresponded to a period of economic crisis in Appalachia, when many workers left to work in northern factories. As with the banjo in the Caribbean among black exiles from African homelands, it became a favorite among white exiles in America. Dr. Dubois mentioned that early support for bluegrass music often came from urban audiences, despite the popular perception of it as working-class music.

Dr. Dubois is the Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History and the director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Duke University. His books include Haiti: The Aftershocks of History; Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution; and Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France. He is, along with David Garner and Mary Caton Lingold at Duke University, responsible for the website Banjology, where you may find additional materials about the history of the banjo in the Afro-Atlantic world.
Maurice Crouse
Professor Emeritus of History
The University of Memphis

Monday, April 22, 2013

Goya and the Guitar

Over one hundred people braved a severe weather advisory on Thursday, April 18th, to hear Dr. Lily Afshar, Professor of Guitar at the University of Memphis, deliver not only an interesting analysis of the etchings of legendary Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya, but also her own performance on the classical guitar. Dr. Afshar’s renowned first recording is 24 Caprichos de Goya, Op. 195. The album grew out of a five-year process – the famed composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco crafted the guitar pieces based on his interpretations of Goya’s etchings, but he played the piano, not the guitar. Afshar edited, practiced, and perfected the music so it would fit the guitar, while also studying Goya and particularly his satirical etchings, gaining her own inspiration from these works.


Dr. Afshar began her lecture with the general history of Goya.  He was a court painter to the Spanish Crown, and through his works he was a commentator, chronicler, and criticizer of his era. He found many faults with society and decided to make a series of aquatint prints in 1797 and 1798, and published an album in 1799 showing the “darkest moments in history.” The work was an Enlightenment critique of 18th-century Spain, and humanity in general. That Goya lived a tragic life and witnessed so much human error is what most likely inspired him to etch these cynical, yet impressive 81 Caprichos, which were so controversial to the Spanish crown that they were quickly withdrawn from sale shortly after their releasing.


Afshar played eight of the 24 guitar pieces written to imitate and translate Los Caprichos. These performances included No Hubo Remedio (There was no help), Dios la perdone: y era su madre (For Heaven's sake: and it was her mother), ¿Quién más rendido? (Who more is surrendered?), Ni así la distingue (Even thus he cannot make her out), Hilan delgado (They spin finely), Volavérunt (They have flown), Sueño de la mentira y la inconstancia (Dream of lies and fickleness), and the most famous of them all, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters). All these selections are found on her CD, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: 24 Caprichos de Goya by Lily Afshar.
The selections were themed around such subjects such as disease, prostitution, heartbreak, and gossip—the ills of society, and the mannerisms of the aristocracy and academia.  Afshar’s spoken portion provided informative context, with the occasional lightening of the mood, such as when she was discussing how Goya sometimes depicted people as animals. More mesmerizing was her guitar performance—it was emotional, dramatic, and yet flawless. With each new slide, she brought to life through guitar the emotion and scene that Goya was trying to portray.
 After a brief but lively question and answer period, Afshar signed copies of her albums and books, and she chatted with audience members.  The event concluded the Spring 2013 season for the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities.  Stay tuned for a recap of the previous year and a sneak preview of the 2013-2014 calendar!  

Monday, March 25, 2013

From Grunts to Tweets: Communication and Human History

Dr. Marshall Poe, Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa, delivered the Sesquicentennial Lecture in History on Thursday, March 21, speaking on the topic “From Grunts to Tweets: Communication and Human History” in the University Center Theater. The title was an adaptation of the title of his book, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet.

Dr. Poe maintained at the beginning of his lecture that there are certain ways to keep up an audience’s attention — be a stand-up comedian, be a stripper, or show a movie. Saying he would use none of these ways, he nevertheless performed somewhat like a stand-up comedian, roaming the stage with a hand-held microphone and holding the audience’s attention for considerably longer than fifteen minutes with his witty, interactive, and provocative lecture.


He began by asking the audience of approximately 100 people to hold up his or her smartphone.  He explained that it represented the latest development in communication. Communication itself, he explained, is one of the basic needs of human beings, serving to give information to others and to get information from others. With the smartphone, “you don’t have to be lonely, you don’t have to be ignorant.” As a form of computer, it is what all previous forms of communication were tending toward — it can handle any sort of information. He rejected popular notions of a population of citizens wasting away on the computer or becoming desensitized to the outside world – rather, he saw people who are more happy and smart due to this accessible and convenient form of information, all readily available at a person’s fingertips.

The cover of his book shows images representing forms of communication — a man, representing speech; a quill and inkpot, representing writing; a hand-operated press, representing printing; a television set, representing electronic devices; and a laptop computer, representing the Internet. Speech is perhaps 180,000 years old; writing perhaps 5,000; printing, about 500; television, 50-60; and the Internet, about 20. The innovations in communication have therefore followed with increasing rapidity. Dr. Poe noted that we still use all these forms of communication to some degree, but each has represented improvement in the ability to communicate.



Speech and memory are natural and practically universal among human beings; nearly all humans learn to speak with ease. They serve several purposes well, but they don’t always provide what is needed; speech has a limited range, and memory can fade or fail. What was needed was the ability to conquer the limitations of space and time.

That was writing, which emerged everywhere that agriculture began and involved symbols to transmit information over greater distances and with more permanence. Symbols, Dr. Poe said, could have been used as early as speech, but writing was not really natural and rather few within an early society ever learned to write. Moreover, most people did not read or did not like to read (Dr. Poe noted that Americans today claim to read only one book a year, and are likely to be lying about even that amount of reading).

Printing was an advance over writing, allowing for even wider distribution of information, but Dr. Poe maintained that it was not the democratizing influence that many have pictured it as being. Like writing, printing could have been done long before the era of Gutenberg. The Romans had movable type, he said, but they used it to imprint the names of emperors on sewer pipes. Printing was used by elites (commoners did not own presses) producing information for other elites (Gutenberg printed his Bibles on expensive vellum).

Television, on the other hand, was a tremendous democratizing influence, being easily available because of the technique of broadcasting information. It was easy to understand; even children who could not read or write loved it, and human beings seem to have a special love for watching and listening.



The Internet was even more democratizing. As with printing, the technology for the Internet was there before it was invented, in the form of ARPANet, developed for use by the Department of Defense and which initially prohibited personal messages, commercial use, and political use. Today the Internet, freed from those restrictions, is almost ubiquitous, providing remarkably inexpensive means to transmit any sort of information, and smartphones are rapidly becoming the way people use the Internet. The smartphone incorporates all previous forms of communication — speech, through chat rooms and text messages (and even telephoning); writing, through e-mail; print, through blogs; and audio/visuals through YouTube — and all these forms can be produced on the smartphone itself by the owner of the smartphone for use by others with similar devices.

Poe suggests that by selection pressure, a force that causes a particular organism to evolve in a certain direction, humans have gone from various advancing mediums of communication in order to satisfy their natural needs to express themselves, communicate, and gather information. He gives the example that people in solitary confinement often go crazy.




Speaking of the implications for education, Dr. Poe said, “The lecture as such is pretty much dead.” For transmission of information between scholars, nothing is better than reading and writing, he maintained, but they are not the best ways to present information to students. He cited his own experience: since putting his lectures on the Russian Revolution online, he no longer has to spend time repeating the content of the lectures but can better spend the time talking about that content. This, he said, frees teachers from the rote part of learning (and students love to watch videos, he added).

Dr. Poe took several questions from the audience after his lecture and most of his answers elaborated on points he had made earlier. The opening question was different — couldn’t the Internet be used as an agency of tyranny by a government? Dr. Poe admitted that a government could with enormous expenditures of energy and resources do so, but he maintained that the Internet is basically uncontrollable.

Dr. Poe is a former writer and editor for The Atlantic Monthly and the author or editor of several books, including A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, The Russian Elite in the Seventeenth Century, and The Russian Moment in World History. He has been a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, the Harriman Institute, and the Kennan Institute. He is best-known, however, as the founder and editor of the podcast website “New Books in History,” which brings interviews with historians to popular audiences.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Lee Smith: "A Life in Books"

On Thursday, February 21, despite the terrible weather, about 130 people came to the University Center Theater to hear acclaimed fiction writer Lee Smith share with us her charming “life in books.” She spoke about the relationship between a writer’s real life and fiction. The event was enlightening not only for budding writers, but for anyone with at least a passing interest in writing. She began the event with a story about how two friends measured their lives—one friend saw her life terms of the people she came across, while the other said that she visualized her life in terms of time and places. By contrast, Smith said that she measured her own life in terms of books—first as a reader, then as a writer.


As a child, Smith said, reading actually introduced her to writing, since she just could not stand her beloved stories ending. She called herself an obsessive reader who read all night long; she then created her own chapters to her favorite books, which fulfilled her need to see her literary heroes and heroines live on. She soon began writing little books herself, and with her childhood friend Martha Sue, she began publishing a weekly, hand-crafted neighborhood newspaper which they delivered door to door on bikes for only a nickel.

Traveling around her neighborhood with her friend, they would see “really neat stuff” that later made its way into Smith’s fiction. In her Davy Crockett spiral notebook, she wrote down all of the scandalous sights she saw and included the date, time, weather, physical descriptions, and her reaction. She would use her discoveries later on in her life in her writing.Reading from her work, she recalled how they saw their fourth grade teacher necking on the couch with her boyfriend and smoking cigarettes.  She also claimed to see her neighbor running past the kitchen window wearing nothing but her apron, followed shortly by her husband wearing nothing at all and carrying a spatula – but Smith later admitted that she fabricated that story!


Smith’s first actual novel, published in 1969, concerns a nine-year old, strange girl similar to herself whose family is breaking up due to the mother running off with a man. Smith was excited to hear what her mother thought about her book, but her mother, concerned that the town would believe that she actually ran off with a man, proclaimed that she did not like it and actually threw it in the river. Her mother helped to censor Smith’s first and second book (the second book had sex in it, and her mother did not approve). Her hilarious anecdote of the creation of her first two novels showed how she incorporated events in her childhood and adolescence into her material.

After her first book, though, Smith said that she had used up her whole life up to that point and had nothing more to say. Luckily, she then became a reporter for the Tuscaloosa News in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and through her new position, she covered the “All South Majorette Competition,” an enormous event where the winner would be named “Miss Fancy Strut.” The competition was filled with charming young ladies and their “bitchy” mommas, she said. Of course, she named her next novel Fancy Strut.  It is a story about majorettes and their moms; her third novel was a breakthrough for her as no one in the novel was anything like her. She said that writers had to eventually stop writing about what they knew and about what they could learn and imagine. That way, she said, writers would come to experience that great pleasure, as Ann Tyler put it, of writing so as “to have more than one life,” which Smith called the greatest privilege and pleasure in the world.

Along the way, Smith had also realized that the relationship between real life and fiction is more complicated than she would ever have guessed. She said that she also wrote to find out what she thought. For instance, in 1980, she wrote a novel entitled Black Mountain Breakdown, where the protagonist Crystal Spangler alters her image for the various men in her life. Crystal loses her own true self and ends up literally paralyzed, but the most terrifying aspect of her condition is that she is happy. When Smith wrote the novel, she understood she was in a marriage that should have ended earlier. By reading the words from her novel, she understood how she felt during the last part of her marriage and was able to then deal with its inevitable ending. She said that her writing gives her a record of her former self.


Smith also said that writers, through their work, often express what is mute or unvoiced in their personality and minds. Along with expression, she said that writing has also become a source of strength for her. She intended for her novel Fair and Tender Ladies to be an honest account of the lives of all the resourceful mountain women she had grown up with. As she began the book, two catastrophic illnesses struck her family, and she spent two years sitting by hospital beds. Smith said that she did not know what she would have done if she had not been writing her novel. The heroine of the story, Ivy Rowe, grew stronger the more Smith needed her and actually became her best friend. Afraid that her mother would die, Smith did not want to finish the novel and began to write slower. Her mother eventually died slowly, and then after her mother’s death, she wrote the last line of the book. To her, writing is comforting and therapeutic. 

Smith’s last point concerning writing was that it has given her a chance to run into all kinds of people. She said that at times, she would meet someone only briefly and get curious about them.  Then, she just had to complete that person’s story. To her, writing has been a journey. She ended by saying that writing is a great pleasure and pastime that she would recommend to everyone.

Lee Smith’s entertaining and insightful talk was made possible by MOCH, the River City Writers Series, and the Creative Writing club, with important assistance from Public Service Funds and Student Event Allocation.  Thank you to all who came out!

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Warmth of Other Suns

About 700 people came into the Rose Theater on Thursday, February 7, to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson deliver the Belle McWilliams Lecture in American History for 2012-2013.  She spoke on the “great migration” of blacks from the American South during the period 1915 to the 1970s. Her book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, was the basis for her lecture. 


As a preliminary to the lecture, the audience was treated to two choral pieces by Street Corner Harmonies, one of the ensembles of the Stax Music Academy, an institution that produces college-bound students from the Soulsville community and the greater Memphis area through music education. The first piece, “Middle Passage,” borrowed from the classic by the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” It was restrained, yet soulful.  But it hardly prepared the audience for the strikingly choreographed and vigorously performed “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel (and Why Not Every Man?),” which followed and received a standing ovation from the audience.



Ms. Wilkerson said that her book was about how far people are willing to go to improve their lives. During the period from 1915 to the 1970s approximately 6 million blacks left the rural South for urban areas of the nation, including the Northeast, the Midwest, and the Pacific Coast, the first time that the lowest class of Americans signaled that they had options and took them. In effect, they were seeking political asylum within their own country, she said.

Although her book, based on more than 1,200 interviews gathered over fifteen years, followed in detail the migrations of three of those 6 million — one to each to the sections just mentioned — Ms. Wilkerson chose to center her lecture on the more general reasons for the migration and the results that were achieved.


The situation that provoked the migration, she said, was the caste system in the South under the Jim Crow laws, an elaborate system of behavior based solely on skin color. She remarked that although many older audiences actually lived through some part of the period of migration or remember the system from its persistence long after the migration, high school audiences find it difficult to believe that she is telling the truth about a judge in North Carolina suspending a trial until a “black Bible” could be found for swearing in a black witness, a law forbidding blacks and whites in Birmingham from playing checkers together, or another law forbidding black motorists from passing slow white motorists. Students in Hawaii suggested that if they could not pass, they would have honked the horn or tail-gated closely to encourage the white motorists to speed up; they were appalled when they were told such things were just “not done” either with impunity. When one remarked, “Well, then, I would just have left,” she explained that was exactly what her book was all about.

Enforcement of the caste system always implied coercion and often went to the point of violence. During the period 1889-1929 there was a lynching every four days on average, sometimes just for “acting like a white person” or for committing minor offenses such as stealing small sums. Ms. Wilkerson remarked that the system caused a loss to whites as well — “to hold people down, you have to get in the ditch with them.”

Ms. Wilkerson explained that a partial reason for the migration beginning about 1915 was that the caste system had always depended on an oversupply of black laborers, most of them sharecroppers who did not own land themselves. The outbreak of war in Europe caused immigration to fall off at the same time that northern factories needed more workers to create the goods to support the Allies and later the American forces. Black workers from the South were part of the answer to the problem. Planters resisted, trying to keep blacks in the South, sometimes waving trains through passenger stations so that blacks could not board them.

She described in detail one particular migration by an Alabama family, sharecroppers with nine children, the youngest of whom was so frail that they worried about his ability to survive work in the cotton fields. Long dreaming of moving to Cleveland (they even named the youngest James Cleveland -- they called him J.C.), they finally made the move. The teacher in Cleveland could not understand his dialect and thought his name was Jesse and eventually the family followed suit. This was Jesse Owens, who in 1936 won four gold medals in the Olympics with Adolph Hitler looking on.

Other than Owens in sports, Ms. Wilkerson mentioned several writers and musicians who emerged out of the migration: Toni Morrison and Lorraine Hansberry in literature, and Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Jacksons, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and John Coltrane in music. Indeed, she maintained, much of American culture was transformed through the migration. (Later in the lecture she said that she owed her own existence to the migration, for her parents would never have met otherwise.)



Ms. Wilkerson also emphasized the political importance of the migration, maintaining that it in time produced the civil rights movement, which was directed as much against reactions to blacks which had developed in northern states as against the southern caste system. The early migration had no acknowledged leaders, she said, but represented rather a people’s decision. Together the people accomplished what Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation could not do — "they freed themselves," Ms. Wilkerson asserted.

Toward the end of her lecture Ms. Wilkerson directed attention to the moment of departure for the migrants, usually a very poignant moment. The migrants were generally young people and their leaving the South was often a virtually complete break with the family, whom they might never see alive again. She reminded the audience that there was no Skype and no cell phones, only letters and expensive long-distance systems for the few who owned telephones of any sort, as well as expensive telegrams.

She ended with a quotation from Richard Wright, who left Natchez, Mississippi, in 1927 and passed through Memphis on his way to Chicago: “I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.”

During the question-and-answer period which followed the lecture, someone asked Ms. Wilkerson what had prompted her to write the book. She explained that everyone knew The Grapes of Wrath, which described a much smaller group of migrants. She felt that there ought to be a book like it about the “great migration,” so she determined to write it.

A former correspondent for the New York Times, Ms. Wilkerson was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, for reporting she did in 1994 when she was with the newspaper’s Chicago bureau. The Warmth of Other Suns won over ten major literary prizes, including the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction, and has been named to over thirty periodicals' lists for “Best Books of the Year.”


 
The Belle McWilliams Lecture in American History has been made possible since 1980 by the Department of History through a bequest from Major Benjamin Schultze and his sister Ms Louise Fellows. They named a fund in honor of Miss Belle McWilliams, their aunt and guardian, “who for 40 years taught American History in the Memphis Public School system.” Besides the lecture series, the fund supports the Belle McWilliams Scholarships and other activities of the department.

For several years the lecture has been part of a series sponsored by the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities. This year MOCH also recruited a large host of co-sponsors: the Program in African and African-American Studies, the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, the Department of English, the Center for Research on Women, the Department of Journalism, and Facing History and Ourselves.

MOCH further worked with a huge number of community partners to publicize the event: African American Educators of Tomorrow, the African American Studies Program at Rhodes College, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the Bridges Foundation, the Church Health Center, the Junior League of Memphis, Leadership Memphis, the Memphis Cotton Museum, the National Civil Rights Museum, the National Society of Black Engineers and Technologists, St. Andrew AME Church, the Soulsville Foundation, the Spence Wilson Chair at Rhodes College, Teach for America, United Way of Memphis, and the West Tennessee Historical Society.

The evening with Ms. Wilkerson was a highlight of the 2012-2013 MOCH calendar, and it was a memorable evening for everyone who participated.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sex and World Peace

On Wednesday, November 14, Dr. Valerie Hudson gave a lecture about her new book Sex and the World Peace in the University Center Theatre. An audience of about 300 attended her fascinating talk. Dr. Hudson is the George H.W. Bush Chair at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texan A&M University. Her address was co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science, the Program in International Studies, and the Center for Research on Women.

In her book, Hudson reveals some groundbreaking conclusions about how to promote peace in the modern world. She argues that the very best predictor of state security is its treatment of women. She started her lecture by welcoming the audience and showing her pleasure to be at the University of Memphis. She spent her day with the political science students and visiting the National Civil Rights Museum. Then she apologized, since the copies of her book did not arrive in Memphis due to the continued problems from Hurricane Sandy.

In her field of study, Hudson tries to move beyond the issue of conflict, which encompasses such themes as ethno-nationalism, democracy deficits, and poverty. She quoted Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General who was among the first major figures of the 21st century to talk about empowering women and girls. Dr. Hudson related how colleagues at her old university had been skeptical about her research into the correlations between the status of women and national security; then she showed statistics for death rates from World War One and Two, revealing that the lost lives of women (from such phenomena as infanticide of young women) were even higher . She asked: “Might the security of women impact security of states?”
Dr. Hudson also discussed the issue of women and food security, as women have to find food and cook it, beside completing their other chores in homes and farms.  Where women have domestic security, there are higher rates of food security, and with that there is state stability. Women also have a role in economic prosperity, as lower rates of female education correspond to lower national income. In relation to health issues, the larger the gender gap, the higher the rate of disease. When the gender gap gets bigger, government corruption also increases. When the gap is lowered, the level of trust in the government becomes higher. In some cultures, marriage is arranged for economic stability, which leads to higher level of population since women have no control on their bodies. Treating women inadequately is the key for physical and structural violence in the world.

The subjugation of women is a threat to the security of the United States, according to Hillary Clinton. Hudson mentioned three “wounds” about women: violence against women, inadequate family laws, and lack of human-decision making. She talked about bad conditions and harsh situations that women suffer from around the world, such as rape, early marriage, sexual assault, domestic violence, women trafficking, honor crimes, sex selective abortion, and property rights. She concluded her lecture by listing several concrete first steps to recognize women as a half of the human race, such as accurate statistics on gender disparities and enforcement of international laws: she characterized these steps as the harvest of low-hanging fruits.
After fielding some interesting questions from the large and interested audience, Dr. Hudson chatted with many guests in an individual setting.  Her work and her talk provided an inspiration for many attendees, and it lent an appropriate conclusion to an exceptionally successful Fall 2012 season for the Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Dr. Anne Twitty Saves the Day!

On Thursday, November 1, 2012, Dr. Deborah Gray White of Rutgers University was supposed to deliver her lecture, “Brown Sugar Melts: African American Women at the Turn of the Millennium,” which would have also been the keynote lecture for the 14th Annual Graduate Conference in African American History. However, Dr. White canceled on short notice after becoming stranded in New Jersey due to Hurricane Sandy.

But all was not lost! Dr. Anne Twitty, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Mississippi, accepted the task of delivering a keynote lecture to a big audience with about twenty-four hours notice.  She gave a captivating lecture entitled, “Promiscuous Legality: Slavery and Legal Culture in the American Confluence.” The audience, including President of the University Dr. Shirley Raines, almost packed the UC Theatre. Dr. Twitty thanked the audience for not “running for the doors” when they heard that she would speak instead of Dr. White.



Dr. Twitty spoke on slavery and legal culture in a region she called the “American Confluence,” an area consisting of the Northwest Territory. Before she continued on to the central subject of the lecture, she treated us to “candy before dinner.” To the audience’s surprise, Dr. Twitty played the entire second verse of the clean version of Jay Z’s popular hit “99 Problems,” and tied the mega-hit into her lecture. She declared that Jay Z’s song tells us so much about legal culture, and we could apply what we learned from the song to other historical occurrences, specifically the way slaves and slaveholders used the law. Dr. Twitty said that the song is a revelation since it focuses on legal knowledge and how individuals develop and use legal knowledge, “in order to manipulate the law for their own gain.” She said that in our daily lives, we use the law, and the law structures our behavior.

Dr. Twitty then gave us the essence of the lecture after we enjoyed our “candy.” She enlightened us on slavery and the law before the infamous Dred Scott Decision of 1857, which declared that slaves were not citizens of the United States, and that all individuals of African descent living in the country at that time were not entitled to the protection of the Constitution. Therefore, no slaves could sue in Federal courts in the United States. Dred Scott petitioned for his freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court, which had become home to the largest collection of “freedom suits” by the time of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 1857. In fact, for centuries before the ruling, according to Dr. Twitty, slaves had the right to petition the court for their freedom, which was a right that derived from early modern English law.



Dr. Twitty related that the collection of freedom suits consisted of either petitions or formal written requests of nearly 300 slaves and more than 1,000 depositions and affidavits of those who owned, sold, hired, or worked among the slaves. She explained how the freedom suits complicate our understanding of slavery and legal culture. Freedom suits, she said, also provide details about the lives of slaves; many of the slaves who filed a freedom suit were urban slaves who had travelled a long way to St. Louis, which she referred to as the center of the American Confluence. She said that because of St. Louis’s ideal location, the St. Louis Circuit Court was an obvious site for the slaves’ legal battles; many slaves who had petitioned for their freedom in St. Louis had already spent a large amount of time in the Northwest Territory and therefore had the legal basis to file a freedom suit.

Dr. Twitty said that the collection of freedom suits also display that slaves and small slave owners learned about the law through their experience with slavery and had a keen understating of the law, specifically the laws that shaped their lives. She described the history of Maria Whiten, a female slave who filed a petition for her freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court in 1829. Whiten and other petitioners had a savvy grasp of the law and were relatively informed of the state statues that allowed them to petition for their freedom. Dr. Twitty said that although the majority of the slaves were illiterate and had no legal education, they had a complex understanding of the law and used their knowledge to earn their freedom. Dr. Twitty said that an analysis of the hundreds of freedom suits showcases “the world before Dred Scott,” a world that was shaped by the law and where slaves and slave owners attempted to manipulated the law for their own gain.

Following the lecture, Dr. Twitty answered questions from audience members in a succinct but informative question and answer session. Based on the questions asked (and the amount of seats still occupied once the lecture ended), the audience apparently enjoyed Dr. Twitty’s brilliant lecture.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Katherine Bassard, "Transforming Scriptures"

On Thursday, October 18, the Marcus Orr Center hosted a wonderful lecture by Dr. Katherine Bassard about her latest book, Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible.  Dr. Bassard is Professor and Chair of the English Department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

She started out her lecture by welcoming the audience and sharing her pleasure to address the Naseeb Shaheen lecture, which is an annual event that is sponsored by the English Department.  She told a story about her visit to the library when she was a graduate student.  While looking for a book, she realized that the books on African American literature occupied only two half shelves.  She determined then that she would dedicate her career to remedying that situation. 

In her lecture, Dr Bassard intended to answer two questions. The first one was: “What did African American Women see in the Bible?”  The second one was: “What African American women do with the Bible?” Her talk reflected back onto the era of slavery in the nineteenth century and the particular hardships that African Americans faced during that time, but she also analyzed the writing of contemporary authors such as Toni Morrison, showing both the changes and continuities in how black women writers dealt with the Bible. 

Dr. Bassard explained the phrase “turning cursing into blessing” based on verses from various versions of the Bible.  Historically, she showed, African American women bore the curse of Adam (such as death, pain, disease…), curse of Eve (such as pain when giving birth), and the curse of Ham (such as being enslaved).  Yet through nuanced readings of various translation of the Bible as well as the work of authors such as Frances Harper and Zora Neale Hurston, she highlighted how black women writers reappropriated the Bible, emphasizing the idea of all people being brothers and sisters. 

Dr Bassard concluded her lecture by talking about her family’s history in relation to the Bible. In 2005, she stumbled upon a deed in the archives of the University of Virginia showing that her great-grandfather, Lafayette Banks, who may have been born in slavery, purchased five acres from the family of a former slaveowner – the man, Benjamin Randolph, had a diary in which he wrote. “References to Scripture authority for the Institution of Slavery.”  Yet Banks showed a steady rise from slavery to independenece.  When he bought the land in 1891, he marked the deed with an X.  The 1910 census listed him as able to read but not write.  In 1920, the census taker recorded that, at age 67, he could read and write.  There was a small comfort and inspiration in that story.

Monday, October 1, 2012

When Dr. Kathleen Turner took the podium to give her official response to the presentation by keynote speaker Dr. Karlyn Campbell, she joked that she was intimidated to be taking on “The Queen of Rhetoric.” Dr. Campbell, a professor of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota, is the author or editor of eight books, including Deeds Done in Words: Presidential Rhetoric and the Genres of Governance.  She is a winner of the Distinguished Scholar Award by the National Communication Association. 



Dr. Campbell’s talk, held on Thursday, September 27, headlined the second event of the Fall 2012 season for MOCH, as well as our first event on campus.  It was a great success.  The audience numbered nearly 300 people, with attendees including students from the university, concerned citizens in the community, and numerous Communication and scholars from all across the U.S. participating in the 13th Biennial Public Address Conference.



In a lively and stimulating talk, Dr. Campbell explained how political discourse affects everyday life and that “civic learning is key.” Ingeniously unveiling the rhetorical power and malleability of the Monroe Doctrine, she touched on the United States government’s involvement with outside powers, such as Chile, Nicaragua, and Cuba, paying particular attention to American leaders’ rhetorical strategies.  She professed, “Our hemisphere of freedom and commitment for democratic self-government uses rhetoric as a powerful force in foreign affairs.”



Following her lecture, Dr. Turner and Dr. James Jasinski of the University of Puget Sound offered respectful analyses of Dr. Campbell’s talk.  The night concluded with a quick and congenial question and answer session.  Thanks to all those who came!