Skip Navigation

Deadline for Project Grants

LOI’s for project grants are due by December 16, 2019. For more information on the dates and guidelines for grants, click here.



A rainy, inhospitable night in Brockton, MA, didn’t stop students from coming out to discuss Uncle Tom’s Children, the first book written by African-American author Richard Wright in 1938. It was the latest piece of literature they had been assigned to read in the Clemente Course in the Humanities. 

Even with English as a second or third language for many, everyone joined in the discussion, which was led by literature professor Corey Dolgon. Small and large groups reflected on themes presented in the book and each person was able to articulate how this story parallels their experiences today.  With this text in mind they listened deeply to each other’s perspectives and shared their own narratives that both echoed and contrasted attitudes expressed nearly a century ago. 

This is why the humanities are critical: we can unite disparate communities by fostering the intellect and compassion needed for effective cross-cultural understanding. Using the tools of the humanities magnifies our commonalities, keeps us curious about each other, and encourages us to examine our worldview.

Four new board members began their terms with Mass Humanities this fall, joining our statewide board of directors and bringing new areas of expertise to our mission.

Lennie Alickman is a retired banker; treasurer of Provincetown Art Association and Museum; artist; real estate agent. Alickman studied painting and received a BFA from Syracuse University in 1983. Beginning in Boston and moving to Los Angeles, she worked for The Boston Company until 1999. Most recently, she served a Senior Managing Director for First Republic Bank in Los Angeles. In 2012, her passion for art was calling so she retired from private banking to pursue a professional career in the arts.

Yves Salomon-Fernandez is President of Greenfield Community College, where she leads and manages all aspects of the college as its chief executive officer. Previously the president of Cumberland County College in New Jersey, she served as Vice President for Strategic Planning and Partnership Advancement for Massachusetts Bay Community College, with teaching experience at Salem State University, Cambridge College, and Boston College. She received her PhD in Educational Research from Boston College.  

Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy is Associate Professor, College of Education, and Co-director, Center for Asian American Studies at University of Massachusetts Lowell. Uy’s work focuses on the Southeast Asian American experience, cultural engagement, and activism. She is a past board chair of the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center, and currently serves on the boards of Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund, and the Community Advisory Board for the Institute of Asian American Studies at UMass Boston. She received her Ed.D. from Harvard.

Alickman, Uy, and Salomon-Fernandez were nominated at the June board meeting and each will serve three-year terms.

Lyell Franke is a graduate of Wheaton College and longtime resident of Duxbury. She is an Overseer and former board member of the South Shore Conservatory. She served on the boards of the Duxbury Creative Arts Council and Duxbury Cultural Council. Lyell current serves on the executive committee of the Duxbury Music Festival, and is a Senior Associate at the MFA.

Franke was appointed to the board by Governor Baker and will serve a three-year term.

al griggs

Al Griggs never intended to get involved in the humanities. But he’s sure glad he did.

“I was a Coca Cola bottler,” said Al. “Growing up and into early adulthood, I was acquainted with the humanities but didn’t focus on it—I mostly read nonfiction!”

Being on the board of Mass Humanities, though, has “opened my mind to so many other things. Philosophy, music, literature, art, history—all those things that make us human.”

And Al, along with his wife, Sally, are now only too happy to be involved with Mass Humanities and proud to support its work.

“Too few people understand the programs and the grant money that’s expended by Mass Humanities. It’s spectacular work that makes a real difference in people’s lives.”

Particularly the Clemente Course in the Humanities. “Massachusetts is an interesting place, in that there are an enormous number of museums, libraries, and colleges all around us—points of exposure to the humanities,” he said. “Then there’s a group of low-income people, and the humanities are not on their radar. What has been so interesting and wonderful to see is how Mass Humanities, through Clemente, programs and grants, impacts people who otherwise wouldn’t have exposure to the humanities. That’s been remarkable.”

“In six years I’ve gotten a great deal of enjoyment from working with Mass Humanities. It’s not just about the money we give or that Mass Humanities gives out, it’s about making us all more aware of the humanities and how they can impact people’s lives–including my own.”

October 27: “History, Historians, and Public Memory”

Two of the nation’s most prominent humanities scholars will appear onstage together for the first time this fall. On October 27, 2019, the Mass Humanities Fall Forum will feature Danielle Allen and Jill Lepore in a conversation about history, historians, and public memory.  Held at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, the Mass Humanities Fall Forum is an annual event that examines current affairs through the lens of the humanities.  

The forum is free and open to the public. Register here.

Sunday, October 27, 3pm-4:30pm
Edward M. Kennedy Institute
Columbia Point, Boston

 “History is propelling change in today’s society through new research and public debate over the legacies of the past,” said Mass Humanities Executive Director Brian Boyles. “Mass Humanities is honored to bring together two of America’s brightest minds to consider the role of historians in sustaining our democracy.”

From the recent New York Times “1619 Project” to decolonization efforts at museums around the world, issues around history have taken on political import in a contentious era. As the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mass Humanities supports humanities-based approaches to challenges facing society. As the nation grapples with issues of identity, citizenship, and misinformation, Allen and Lepore will consider the forces influencing public memory.

Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. A 2019 Massachusetts Governor’s Award in the Humanities recipient, she is the author of six books, including Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2014). Allen is also the principal investigator for the Democratic Knowledge Project, a distributed research and action lab at Harvard University that seeks to identify, strengthen, and disseminate the bodies of knowledge, skills, and capacities that democratic citizens need in order to succeed at operating their democracy.

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker. A prize-winning professor, she teaches classes in evidence, historical methods, humanistic inquiry, and American history. Much of Lepore’s scholarship explores absences and asymmetries in the historical record, with a particular emphasis on the histories and technologies of evidence. As a wide-ranging and prolific essayist, Lepore writes about American history, law, literature, and politics. She is the author of many award-winning books, including the bestselling These Truths: A History of the United States (2018). Her latest book is This America: The Case for the Nation (2019).

Funds available for projects that explore voting rights.

To commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, Mass Humanities will prioritize funding public programs in 2020 that use the humanities to explore voting rights in America. Applications were accepted during the Fall 2019 Project Grant round for “The Vote: Exploring voting rights in the U.S.”

Mass Humanities invites non-profit organizations to submit Letters of Intent no later than September 9, 2019 for Project Grants. Click here to learn more.

Sojourner Truth

The 19th Amendment

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declared that the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of a person’s sex. Ratified in 1920, it marked a major victory in the women’s movement by extending the vote to women. But with racism and xenophobia on the rise in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many women of color, like their menfolk, could still not vote. Poll taxes and literacy tests effectively barred many African Americans from voting, especially in the South, and Native Americans in 1920 could gain the right to vote only by severing their ties to their tribes. Many states had passed laws making it illegal for noncitizens to vote, and Chinese Americans were barred from citizenship. Clearly the ratification of the 19th Amendment represents a complicated moment in our nation’s history, one that warrants thoughtful reflection on how to commemorate it.

The year 2020 arrives at another pivotal period in our nation’s electoral history. Some states are considering extending the franchise to felons and younger teens, while others have increased the hurdles to voting. As voting rights, voter fraud, and electoral security are being debated across the country, the humanities offer essential resources for deepening our understanding of this moment.

Mass Humanities invites applications for projects that explore the many dimensions of voting rights in America, using the lens of history, literature, philosophy, jurisprudence, identity-based studies, or any other humanities discipline. 

By Nancy Donahue, 2019 Governor’s Awards in the Humanities Honoree

Virtually my entire life has been spent in New England manufacturing cities made up of hard-working, diverse immigrant groups living in harmony for the most part, who are making tremendous contributions not only to the economy, but also to the less fortunate in the community, and to an exciting, vibrant culture.

I grew up in New Britain, CT, at the end of the Great Depression and into World War II. My father was an engineer who ended up having to make his living selling ten-cent insurance policies door to door, while my mother raised my two brothers, sister, and me. All the while she volunteered to help families who weren’t faring as well, through the church, Red Cross, and other organizations.

The war had started when I entered junior high, and I joined the Victory Farmerettes. All the boys—including my uncles—had been drafted, and the farmers were left with no one to do the labor. So, we girls spent our days working the soil on farms around New Britain, with my group being headquartered in an abandoned country club. Everyone took part in the war effort in big and small ways: each family had their own Victory Garden; we all saved and rolled the tin foil used to wrap chewing gum. In high school, I was a Candy Striper at the hospital and involved in many church and school organizations.

After I graduated from Lasell College, I was lucky enough to land a job as one of five female salespeople at IBM around 1950 – there were two young sales women in New York, one in Los Angeles, one in Chicago, and me solo in Boston. The company was refining its innovations on the electric typewriter and management thought women would be better at persuading schools and colleges to buy them, as typing was considered “a woman’s job.” That was the time of the Korean conflict, and I volunteered to work Air Patrol night shifts at the top of Hancock Tower, watching for enemy planes. Why they ever thought enemy planes would be coming over Boston, I don’t know.

I met my dear late husband Dick while I was working in Boston and he was attending law school. We were married a short time later, and little did I know that fifteen years later I would be mother to eleven children. I had always thought that six children sounded like the right number of blessings to count, but I ended up with many more.

Nancy’s grandson Kyle Donahue, her son Philip Donahue, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Nancy Donahue, Nancy’s grandson Dylan Donahue

Before we were married, Dick and I both volunteered for John F. Kennedy’s campaign when he ran against Senator Henry Cabot Lodge for the U.S. Senate in 1952. After we were married, Dick continued to volunteer with the Kennedy organization, eventually taking a leave of absence from his law firm to work on Kennedy’s attempt at the vice presidency in 1956 and then, most importantly, on his 1960 presidential election campaign.

When President Kennedy asked Dick to serve on his administration, we moved the growing family to Washington, DC. I was raising six, soon to be seven kids essentially by myself; Dick worked from dawn to long after dusk, so he was no help. When we had number seven, we hired a young woman from Panama whose mother was an indigenous Panamanian and whose father was French of African descent; she looked African American. She had no understanding of the discrimination in this country, and neither did I.

Once, she had a toothache and we sent her to a dentist who, unbeknownst to me, refused to treat black people. She was turned away. We were shocked. Another time, she tried to take the kids to a matinee movie, but wasn’t allowed in. For me, the evils of the country I was born into were being revealed; for her of course, it was much worse. She stayed with us for many years, went on to work in a hospital, married and moved to Brooklyn. We kept in touch for the rest of her life.

Over the years I was fortunate to have found a series of au pairs who not only were terrific caretakers, but also taught the family and me about the world outside of DC since they all were immigrants. Our friendships lasted many years.

November 15, 1963 was Dick’s last day with the Kennedy administration. He had been working for 3 years in the White House and another year before that on the campaign, and he thought it was time to get back to the law and to Lowell. Seven days later, on November 22, President Kennedy was assassinated. That was a horrible time—more evil revealed. I remember flying to the funeral with the rain pouring down the plane window and how it matched our tears.

In the following years, Dick served on the board and then as president and COO of Nike in Oregon. The arrangement was that I would fly to Portland and stay for two weeks, then fly back for two weeks in Lowell, as I had many commitments in Lowell as well as some of the family who hadn’t yet flown the nest. I became more involved with the Lowell community and served on various boards, first in the area of human service with agencies such as the United Way and the International Institute, and then with more arts-oriented organizations.

In the early 1990s, the president of UMass Lowell, who was a neighbor, wanted to start a foundation for the university in order to gain support from private sources. He asked if I would help with the fundraising to get it going, so we started a series of events, twice a year, where we would bring in musicians and other performers from around the world: Yo-Yo Ma, the Moscow Pops, Bennie Goodman, and Marcel Marceau, to name a few. We were flying by the seat of our pants, but it was great fun and very successful. At last, Lowell had some top quality cultural events!

Nancy at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre when it acquired the building formerly known as Liberty Hall, 1983

As I had this new reputation in the performing arts, a couple of actors from a summer theater in New Hampshire came to me to talk about opening a professional theater in Lowell. We assembled a board, UMass Lowell offered their auditorium, and the Merrimack Repertory Theatre was born. The Theatre soon acquired its own space and has gone on to produce wonderful shows that are influenced by the diverse perspectives of the Lowell community, also serving as a showcase for new works. It is now a nationally recognized theater attracting actors, directors and designers from across the country. I served as the first president of the board and for the next forty years served on the board in many different capacities; I’m currently chair of the board.

Dick served for many years on the board of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and my family has been pleased to support the work of the Kennedy Library in promoting civic education, hosting naturalization ceremonies for new immigrants, and offering free public forums on an array of issues that resonate with President and Mrs. Kennedy’s vision for the future of our country. Our relationships with the Kennedy Library, Caroline Kennedy, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy are associations of which the Donahue family has always been quite proud.

I serve on many other boards and advisory boards in the arts, the humanities, and education. I have learned over the years that culture and human services go hand-in-hand to meet peoples’ needs. Social and creative enrichment are just as important as food and shelter for a thriving community. It’s also amazing to see the leadership in Lowell diversify over the years. I look forward to watching Lowell blossom into the future.

–September 2019

Blake 750x500

By Lee Blake, President, New Bedford Historical Society
2019 Governor’s Awards in the Humanities Honoree.

Join us on 10/27 to celebrate her achievements.

When I was in high school in the 60s, I was fascinated by the politics of the day. Martin Luther King was coming up, people were talking about black resistance, the Vietnam War, and how to organize and I didn’t know anything about that. I wanted to be able to discuss the issues, but I couldn’t find any information. I began to organize students and we demanded African American studies classes and African American afterschool programs. This was done out of our need to connect to our own identity and to have positive images of black people.

I was born and raised in New Bedford. I attended UMass Amherst and UMass Dartmouth in the early 70s. At that time, it was very hard for people of color to get into college, but I knew that college was the place where I would learn more, and where I would be in a position to earn more. I was in the second UMass class to integrate and my experiences there were really pretty bad. There were about 15 of us from New Bedford who enrolled with other people of color from around the state. We were each put in a different dorm. None of the women in my dorm would speak to me for the whole semester.

When I graduated, my first job was teaching African American studies classes at my high school in New Bedford. After four years, I moved to New York where I worked to integrate the construction unions.  Then I worked for the first African American mayor of New York as director of education for the city. I worked with all the school systems and also the state, addressing urban education issues on the elementary and secondary level.

I moved back to New Bedford after 20 years or so, just before September 11, seeking more community involvement in New Bedford’s development.

New Bedford is extremely diverse and has a strong history with the Underground Railroad. There are large Cape Verdean, Portuguese and African American populations as well as many other ethnic groups that were all brought here through the whaling and textile industries. It’s a culturally rich community.

At the New Bedford Historical Society, where I have been president for eight years, we work with other organizations to make sure that voices from all corners of our community are heard through events that go on in the city. It is our role to preserve New Bedford’s history for people of color.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded us five grants relating to New Bedford’s Underground Railroad and Frederick Douglass. Not everyone knows that Frederick Douglass and his wife, Anna, lived in New Bedford for a time.  In fact, Frederick gets the name Douglass here in New Bedford and in 1842 voted for the first time in local elections.  A number of well-known abolitionists lived in New Bedford before they moved to other parts of the country; this included Lewis Hayden, John Jacobs, brother to Harriet Jacobs, and Jeremiah Sanderson, an educator who founded schools for children of color in California.

In partnership with UMass Dartmouth, I hosted several summer workshops where we invited approximately 80 teachers from around the country each summer to learn about the Underground Railroad from the maritime perspective. We created a movable campus using historical sites here in New Bedford that were involved at that time. We held lectures at the Quaker meeting house, New Bedford Whaling Museum, and other historical sites so that people would get a flavor for and understand these places’ role in American history.

It is important to understand that things have changed for people of color in our country. Part of my work with the Historical Society is to make sure that people recognize these changes and to include the voices of people of color in the historical narrative of the city. People here in New Bedford, but really people across the United States, have struggled to move the country forward. When I’m working with the historical society and our focus is on African American history, Native American history, Cape Verdean history and the Underground Railroad, what we are doing is making sure that the environment that we live in supports multicultural and multi-racial history.

When I was young, I would have loved to hear these stories. They are inspiring—so tangible and touchable. The Underground Railroad was something people believed in. They supported people; they helped people while they were here in New Bedford and then helped them move on. Committees were formed to help buy people’s freedom. These are the kind of empowering stories that young people want to hear about. This is what the humanities do!

Mass shootings are often described as “tragedies.” When former First Lady Michelle Obama discussed in her recent autobiography the 2012 murder of 20 children and six of their educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, she wrote, “Usually, work was work and home was home, but for us, as for many people, the tragedy in Newtown shattered every window and blew down every fence.”

Similarly, the Associated Press reported on how the Las Vegas community “marked the anniversary of the tragedy,” referring to the 2017 mass shooting at a country music festival at which 58 people were murdered and close to 500 wounded. The American Public Health Association responded to the murders of 11 people at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California by stating, “It is unacceptable that preventable gun violence tragedies have become so frequent.”

In perhaps the most heartbreaking official response to a mass gun murder in the U.S., President Barack Obama, tears streaming down his face, spoke to the community of Newtown and said, “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change…We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”

Crosses, flowers, signs, and other items left at a makeshift memorial site established near the MLK Commons at Northern Illinois University within a week of the February 14, 2008 shooting at NIU which killed six and injured 18 people. CC BY-SA 3.0
Crosses, flowers, signs, and other items left at a makeshift memorial site established near the MLK Commons at Northern Illinois University within a week of the February 14, 2008 shooting at NIU which killed six and injured 18 people. CC BY-SA 3.0

We can do better, and one way is to change the language we use to describe and come to grips with these atrocities. It can seem like a small point, a linguistic splitting of hairs, but language shapes meaning, and meaning informs action.

Not at all inevitable

When we call a mass murder a tragedy, we create a narrative in which such violence seems inevitable. Any literature student knows that “tragedy” was formalized as a specific theatrical form in ancient Greece, is best exemplified by the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, and was defined by the philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics. In its original usage, “tragedy” referred to the suffering of an individual whose “tragic flaw” fated them to fulfill a usually horrible destiny. The protagonist is therefore simultaneously a victim of fate and the agent of his own inevitable victimization. In Oedipus’s case, he tried to avoid his fate but ended up falling victim to it due to his own tragic flaw, in his case pride.

There is no comparison between this and the victims of mass gun violence. What was the “fatal flaw” of the worshippers in Killeen, Texas? Of Charleston, South Carolina, or the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh? The students and teachers and support staff at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech University, Sandy Hook Elementary, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Umpqua Community College, or Santa Fe High School?

The answer to all these questions is, “Nothing.” The victims of these crimes were not destined to die, but the use of the word “tragedy” means that we accept, linguistically, the idea that these people were, like Oedipus, somehow complicit in their own demise, and that there was, and is, nothing we can do about it, because such events are fated, inevitable. This perhaps unconscious acceptance of our own powerlessness creates passivity. Using “tragedy” to describe mass violence leads us to understand life as an experience that contains events we are helpless to stop, a world in which we are all as blind as Oedipus, left to weep and wail, send thoughts and prayers—passive responses that do nothing of substance to stop the massacres.

Evil and mundanity

It is the same with use of the word “evil” to refer to the perpetrators of mass violence. “Evil” has become a shorthand term to describe something or someone who does something morally wrong, but the word comes with a long history of religious and moral subtext, particularly of the supernatural. The word is commonly used within the realm of morality and religion to describe otherworldly forces uncontrollable by humans. In the Christian Bible, for example, evil is a constant threat that humans must overcome: in Ephesians 6:12, humans must “struggle not against flesh and blood, but…against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

But mass murderers do not possess supernatural powers. They do not scratch at our windows at night. Mass murderers choose to kill people for many reasons, but none of them were driven by an uncontrollable supernatural force. When we describe them as “evil,” we, again unconsciously, turn them into people who commit murder because of some spiritual lapse, some severe moral flaw, rather than being criminal actions carried out by “ordinary men” (to borrow Christopher Browning’s description of Nazi mass murderers), truly banal human beings, as Hannah Arendt described Adolph Eichmann.

We can change this by referring to “mass shootings” as “mass murders”—and murder is a crime. The perpetrators of this violence should be called criminals, not “shooters” (a term that places the murderer at the center of the narrative rather than the victims who deserve our attention). Use of the term “crime” rather than “tragedy” also places these massacres in a different realm: instead of the language of inevitability and powerlessness, we can frame our discussion in the realm of the law, which is a social and civic problem, not a religious or moral one, and which people believe they can control or prevent—not the case with “tragedy” or “evil.”

Perhaps this small change in terminology can create a different response other than passivity, allowing us to create proactive solutions to the problem of mass gun violence in the U.S. If we don’t, we will then be the agents of our destruction, like Oedipus, blind to the true meaning of mass murders, and to our own role in their perpetuation—and that would truly be a tragedy, because we would be the ones who failed to stop them.

“History is very important and powerful. In a way, if you’re not remembered, you don’t exist.” – Martha J. Brockman, Gay & Lesbian Community Coalition of Central Massachusetts (GLCCCM)

Note: On October 22, Worcester Historical Museum announced that For the Record has been extended through Saturday, November 16, 2019. 

A core aspect of our work at Mass Humanities is lifting up stories that have gone unheard. This can be hard, as much of the historical record of people who struggled for their rights and for recognition remains in their hands: hidden away in attics, in scrapbooks, on posters and in letters, dispersed, decentralized. We fund the challenging grassroots efforts, often undertaken by local museums and historical societies, of collecting, organizing and exhibiting those scattered materials, thereby telling new stories in a cohesive way.

A grant we made in 2019 to the Worcester Historical Museum is a good example of this work. A $15,000 Mass Humanities grant is helping develop parts of a major exhibition and catalog commemorating the 50th anniversary of New York’s Stonewall Uprising and the advent of the modern gay liberation movement. Called “For the Record: LGBTQ+ Worcester,” the project is bringing together the scattered documentation of Worcester County’s LGBTQ+ experience in partnership with College of the Holy Cross, Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Digital Worcester.

“For the Record” exhibit. Photo: Katherine Stevens
“For the Record” exhibit. Photo: Katherine Stevens

The exhibit debuted in April to a crowd of hundreds who packed the museum. It includes everything from parade banners to flyers advertising dancing and nightlife to the commemoration of World AIDS Day in 1995 to Butterworth Farm, a gay commune started by men from Worcester and New York in the 1970s in Royalston.1

One wall of the room is painted with a street map highlighting popular nightlife and cruising locations for a community that had to go to great lengths to congregate in an often-stifling environment.2

Street map from “For the Record.” Photo: Katherine Stevens
Street map from “For the Record.” Photo: Katherine Stevens

Specifically, Mass Humanities funding is going toward gathering oral histories, creating an archive, and presenting focused educational programs based on the exhibit. This is an ongoing effort: oral histories and artifacts will continue to be identified through active community outreach. Digital Worcester (a free database) will serve both as a portal for sharing images, stories, audio and artifacts, and as a permanent repository of local LGBTQ+ history.

The public can participate as well. Through a website created for the archive––members of the community will be able to continue to have their stories and accomplishments archived, giving them the opportunity to be part of the future of the project.

To quote the project’s website, “[The exhibit] is the first installment, a down payment of sorts, in a larger project to build a sustainable physical and digital archive of Worcester County’s LGBTQ+ history.”

The exhibit runs through November 16, 2019. Worcester Historical Museum’s hours and location can be found here.

  1. Foskett Jr., Steven H. “Worcester Historical Museum debuts archive of local LGBTQ moments and milestones.” Worcester Telegram & Gazette. 25 April 2019. Web. 16 July 2019.
  2. Same.

By Hilda Ramirez, Board Member, Mass Humanities

My childhood was marked by the intersections of worlds. I grew up in the small town of San José de las Matas in the Dominican Republic. That world was an island within an island, a slow, bucolic life with relatively few people, all of whom looked, behaved, and spoke similarly to me.

But the country was in turmoil as the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo had been assassinated and groups were vying for power. My parents were afraid of the unrest so they set out to emigrate to the U.S.

I was nine when I moved with my five siblings to join our parents in the Lower East Side of a very different island: Manhattan. I was amazed at the extreme shift from my previous life. Over the years in NYC, I spent countless hours at the New York Public Library reading about the different kinds of people I saw everyday—Italians, Jews, Poles, Chinese, African Americans. The central question for me was how and why these groups came together during their commutes to work, indifferent to each other, and then went back into their respective sections of the city. All of their distinct ways of behaving, dressing, and talking fascinated me.

The next collision of worlds took place in high school in midtown—a school for the arts and business, which at the time was just school for me, but now I realize what an unusual combination that was. One particular teacher, Mrs. Gottlieb, opened up the world of American literature and Shakespeare. She had us act out scenes from Shakespeare, making it much more accessible. She took us to the dress rehearsals of every Broadway play, and then had us write about them.

Arts, culture, and business have remained intertwined for me. At the age of 21 I found myself in Berlin. I had gotten a job with John Hancock, the insurance company, coordinating international symposiums. For the next 17 years I worked traveling around the world—Berlin, Bali, Indonesia, London, Spain, New York—the highlight being coordinating the company’s sponsorship of  the Olympics in Lillehammer and Atlanta.

It was in those final years at the company that I took on a special project: overseeing the creation of an exhibit about John Hancock at the Observatory on top of the John Hancock Tower in Boston. I had never paid much attention to the history of the American Revolution, but I saw this as an opportunity to put my experience at the intersections of worlds to use. I heard from international visitors that the exhibit shouldn’t focus only on the perspective of the U.S. What about stories of the British soldiers? Or the laborers and slaves in the U.S. and elsewhere involved in the war efforts of both sides? I’m proud of the result, which is so much more interesting than what one might expect of such an exhibit.

But after nearly two decades of international corporate travel, I felt that I had lost touch with community. I got my Master’s degree in Education and Social policy at Harvard so I could learn the bigger picture of public education. I currently direct the Latino Educational Institute at Worcester State University, where we work to decrease the achievement/opportunity gap facing Latinx students, in Worcester and other cities.

A few years ago it occurred to me that there was no place in Worcester to gather and present Latino culture and the history of immigration to the city, so I helped found the Latino History Project of Worcester, which, via the Worcester Historical Museum, has received funding from Mass Humanities. We are starting small, from nothing, but with this support from the museum and Mass Humanities, I’m hoping we can grow and eventually have our own space, to ensure that the little world I came from, the culture and people of Latin America with all their distinct ways of behaving, dressing, and talking, can be discovered by curious young people of all kinds in the future.

Nicomedes Santa Cruz. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some works of literature transform the way we view the world and move us to act in ways we didn’t anticipate. I like to think of these type of works as literary interventions—acts of resistance by means of representation—that can produce change.

The third and final writer I’m covering in this series (read the first post here and second here) is Afro-Peruvian writer, intellectual, musicologist, and cultural critic Nicomedes Santa Cruz.

The décima, a transculturated poetical form

First a word about the decima. Brought from Spain to Latin America in the colonial period, it became a true Latin American genre, practiced in many countries, often sung in counter point.

Décima refers to the number of lines in a poem, diez (ten) in Spanish. A décima has ten verses of eight syllables of variable ABBACCDDC rhyme (Santa Cruz 29), sung or recited accompanied by music with audience participation. Most décimas open with an octosyllabic forced quatrain that introduces the theme. Stanzas of ten-line verses of eight syllables are composed live or recited from memory. If composed live, they highlight the ability of the decimista (décima performer) to improvise and rhyme the last line of each stanza to each of the lines in the forced quatrain. It’s within the formal constraints of the décima that improvisation takes place.

Nicomedes Santa Cruz. Photo from “Juanmi” Delgado [Public domain]

Nicomedes Santa Cruz (1925-1992)

Born in Lima in 1925, Nicomedes Santa Cruz, a factory worker at the time, became a decimista after meeting Don Porfirio Vázquez, that great patriarch of black folklore, in 1945. No longer in force in Spain, the décima’s internal rhythm and links to music and performance operated as an oral mnemonic structure for populations historically barred from acquiring formal education.

It’s from within the décima tradition that Santa Cruz would stage the recovery of Afro-Peruvian roots beginning in the mid-1950s. Santa Cruz’s work coincides with renewed debates on the nature of Peruvian identity and culture as a result of rural migration to the capital city and working-class activism. His work chronicles and contributes to this social and ethical awakening.

Black Rhythms of Peru
The first sketch that would become the lynchpin of recovery of Afro-Peruvian roots was written in 1956, but completed and performed by the bard himself in 1957 to critical acclaim (Maríñez 115). Though Santa Cruz published several poems and recorded various discs, it was not until the publication of the collection Ritmos negros del Perú in 1971 that his efforts to recover what he termed a Peruvian africanía—one that forged diasporic connections (Africa, the Black Atlantic, the Caribbean, Brazil, Mexico), acknowledged indigenous histories of silencing and dispossession, and worked in social justice themes—attained national and international recognition.

Forced quatrain
Rhythms of slavery
Against bitterness and sorrows
To the rhythm of the chains
Black Rhythms of Peru.
…And so they say:

1My grandmother arrived from Africa
2Clad in seashells
3She was brought by Spaniards
4In a caravel.
5They branded her with hot iron
6The slave brand was her cross
7And in South America
8To the rhythm of her sorrows
9The black drums broke into
10Rhythms of slavery

For one coin only
They resold her in Lima
And in the Plantation “La Molina”
She served the Spanish people
With other blacks from Angola
They earned for their labor
Mosquito bites for their veins
Harsh ground for sleeping quarters
And nothing, no solace
Against bitterness and sorrows…

In the sugarcane plantation
The sad socavón was born
In the sugar mill
The black man sang the zaña.
The machete and the scythe
Hardened his dark hands;
And the Indians with their quenas
And the black man with his drum
Sang their sad fate
To the rhythm of the chains…

The old blacks died
But amidst the dry sugarcane
Their zamacueca is heard
And their panalivio from afar
And one can hear the festejo
That they sung in their youth
From Cañete to Timbuktuu
From Chancay to Mozambique
Carrying within their vibrant sounds
Black Rhythms of Peru.

The collection’s lead poem places Afro-Peruvian history and roots alongside other Afro-Latin American cultures, making their experience part of the greater history of slavery in the Americas, a theme carried throughout. Because the grandmother’s story embodies other Middle Passage crossings, she becomes a powerful avatar of resistance. Her journey is marked by a double displacement: she is branded with the hot carimba (slave branding tool) upon arrival and then transported to the Pacific Ocean. Santa Cruz underscores her circuit and destination as Spanish to differentiate it from Brazilian, French, Anglophone Caribbean, and the United States—important because English-language discussions of the Back Atlantic and the Middle Passage center on the Anglophone world, and because in Latin America the long-held view that African roots were confined strictly to Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil resulted in the erasure of African contributions to many national cultures in the Latin American mainland.

The last stanza identifies the sugar plantation as the birthplace of Afro-Peruvian music. After passing, the first generations leave their musical legacy: the zamacueca, the panalivio, and the festejo. Thus, because it is deployed to claim belonging, to assert rootedness, and express resistance and self-assertion, the European provenance of the décima is subverted, turned inside-out. Its rhythm and content bears witness to the survival of an African memory that survived the Middle Passage and was reinvented and reimagined by Afro-Peruvians. However, Santa Cruz places indigenous history of suffering and dispossession alongside that of former slaves, thereby acknowledging that shared history of dispossession with indigenous communities across the Americas.

By claiming the African strand as one of the essential living roots of Peruvian culture, Santa Cruz recognizes Afro-Peruvians as peoples whose history and struggles, though largely unacknowledged, have contributed much to national culture, and restores blackness to its central place within Peruvian culture—effecting resistance by means of representation.

Stay in touch with Mass Humanities

Sign up for our Newsletter