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Uncovering the History of Black Holyoke

I prayed for this day, for someone to take an interest in our history in Holyoke. – Holyoke community member

It’s easy to forget that history is always being written. We tend to believe the past is the past: it’s unchanging and, especially at this point, well documented.

But that isn’t case. There is much original research still to be done, many untold stories to tell. That’s why we offer Local History Grants, to support small organizations in working with their historical collections, and why, in 2017, Mass Humanities funded Wistariahurst Museum for a project uncovering the history of the black community in Holyoke.

Doug Griffin looking through a photo album at Wistariahurst. Photo: Erika Slocumb
Doug Griffin looking through a photo album at Wistariahurst. Photo: Erika Slocumb

It’s a story waiting to be told. The striking absence of African-Americans from the archival records in Holyoke, and the degree of neglect of the topic among scholars, made the project a crucial investment in the history of western Massachusetts. Led by scholar Erika Slocumb, the goal of the project was to uncover the problems, joys, pain, and struggles black people in Holyoke faced in their daily lives from the 18th century to the present. The experiences of black community members in Holyoke connect to national themes, from Civil Rights activism to school integration, red-lining, white flight, and the post-industrial economy.

Slocumb and volunteers initially worked with materials from the Wistariahurst Archive, the Holyoke History Room at the Holyoke Public Library and the UMass Special Collections and University Archives. But they were disappointed in just how little material was present and preserved, how little significant documentation had been collected.

As a result, Slocumb went out into the community, met people, generated trust, and began building a history sourced from people’s attics, scrapbooks and memories.

The community response was extremely enthusiastic; according to Slocumb, “The greatest part about this project has been the response I received from the community.” The project inspired people because of its potential to tell previously unknown stories, bring forth and capture old memories, and add something entirely new to the historical record.

That energy led to a desire to see the project to continue, which it is: in 2019, Mass Humanities awarded Wistariahurst a project grant ($14,500) for a much larger effort consisting of oral history interviews, transcription, and the creation of a gallery exhibit at Wistariahurst, which will go live in 2020.

Mass Humanities support
Historic Holyoke at Wistariahurst was awarded a $2,000 Research Inventory Grant for “Black Holyoke: Uncovering the History of Black Peoples in Holyoke, MA,” for the inventory and scanning of Wistariahurst Museum’s Holyoke and Carlos Vegas/Latino History Collections in order to provide a searchable documentation of Holyoke’s black populations.

Historic Holyoke at Wistariahurst was awarded a $14,500 Project Grant for “Black Holyoke Oral History Project” for oral history collection, transcription, and the creation of a gallery exhibit examining the lives and experiences of Black residents of Holyoke from the second half of the 20th century through the present.

Interviewing my father meant the world to me. As I got older, our relationship and bond grew stronger and I realized that there was a lot that I did not know about him. This interview allowed me to do something positive, not only for…the Dudley area’s history, but also for my personal relationship with my father. For that I am forever grateful. – Valduvino Goncalves

It’s hard to top oral history when it comes to sheer storytelling power. The interviews capture the memories and perceptions of people who participated in a particular moment in history, preserved as a record for future generations. Oral histories are compelling, and valuable.

That’s why in 2018 Mass Humanities supported the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), a Roxbury/Dorchester nonprofit community organization, for a project engaging young adults in the creation of oral histories of families living in the neighborhood. Specifically, the series of intergenerational interviews elevated the history of the families that moved to the neighborhood in the decades following WWII and rebuilt the community across diverse racial, ethnic and linguistic identities.

Tony and Elsie Hernandez
Tony and Elsie Hernandez. Photo: Ros Everdell

DSNI had two goals for the project: 1) share the neighborhood’s unique history, and 2) arm the next generation with history. Nineteen young interviewers from the Dudley Street area were trained on how to do interviews, capturing their African-American, Latino, Cape Verdean and White elders’ multilingual stories.

Sixteen interviews were recorded, covering a multitude of topics: the journey to the neighborhood; discrimination in housing and education, school desegregation, race relations, and social justice; holding onto cultural traditions, pride, hope, and the importance of family and community.

The stories told were both good and bad, realistic and hopeful. Houses in the neighborhood had low value, and banks blatantly discriminated against minorities, so people found other ways, mostly relying on each other, to buy homes. Arson was rampant–fires were so frequent that one woman kept a bag by the door for a quick escape with her three young children.

Three generations
Three generations: Gertrudes, Maria and Joceline Fidalgo. Photo: Ros Everdell

There were lessons learned as well: four federal acts, all from the mid-60s, directly impacted families and the neighborhood: the Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Immigration & Fair Housing Acts.

Overall, the people interviewed love their neighborhood, have hope and pride, a sense of community, are happy with the improvements they fought for—and are worried about affordability for the next generation.

Recordings and transcripts of the interviews can be found at UMass Boston Healey Archives, DSNI and with all the interviewers and interviewees.

Mass Humanities Support

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative was awarded a $7,500 Project Grant for “Neighborhood Voices: Stories of the Families of the Dudley Street Neighborhood of Boston,” an oral history project documenting the stories of families living in the Dudley Street neighborhood.

Photo credit: Pixabay
Photo credit: Pixabay

With so much media that demands to be consumed right now—newspapers and magazines, books and blogs, the infinite scroll of social media, documentaries, YouTube, podcasts, NetFlix, breaking news, and more, more, more—why spend your precious time reading obscure middlebrow literature published in the first half of the twentieth century?

For one thing, a lot of it is very well written. And it may just let you rest for a moment and make some sense of the world. As the literary scholar Gordon Hutner writes in What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel 1920-1960, this “middle-class realistic” fiction called middlebrow provides “a rudimentary vision of some relative cohesiveness of American life, a shareable set of values and questions about the world in which middle-class Americans live.”

In previous posts (“Rediscovering Middlebrow,” November 21, 2018) and “Edna Ferber’s Cimarron, December 20, 2018), I discussed how the work of 20th century middlebrow writers is in danger of being forgotten, but shouldn’t be: they still have much to say to present-day readers. Another middlebrow writer waiting to be rediscovered is Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943), whose body of work includes the book-length narrative poem of the Civil War John Brown’s Body (1928) and the classic short stories “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936) and “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937).

Stephen Vincent Benét
Stephen Vincent Benét at Yale College (photographer unknown) [Public domain]
There was a time when Stephen Vincent Benét was hailed by critics as the Great American Writer and predicted his name would live forever. Pick up his short stories today and the first thing you’ll notice is the clarity of his language, his ease of style. I mean no disrespect to him as a disciplined literary craftsman, but at heart Benét was a storyteller. Try these lines as openers:

The north and the west and the south are good hunting grounds, but it is forbidden to go east. It is forbidden to enter the Dead Places. But I am a priest and the son of a priest and we can venture there alone. (“By the Waters of Babylon,” 1937)

They came up over the pass one day in one big wagon—all ten of them—man and woman and hired girl and seven big boy children, from the nine-year-old who walked by the team to the baby in arms. Or so the story runs—it was in the early days of settlement and the town had never heard of the Sobbin’ Women then. But it opened its eyes one day, and there were the Pontipees. (“The Sobbin’ Women,” 1937)

It’s a story they tell in the border country, where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire. Yes, Dan’l Webster’s dead—or at least they buried him. But every time there’s a thunderstorm around Marshfield, they say you can hear his rolling voice in the hollows of the sky.” (“The Devil and Daniel Webster,” 1936)

While you’re wondering who these people are and what’s going to happen to them, the one sure thing is that they are Americans. You can’t read Benét without recognizing his faith in the promise of the United States. Born in 1898 into a military family in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he published his first book of poetry at 17, and continued publishing fiction and poetry prolifically until he died of a heart attack at age 43. His era was the 1920s and 1930s. In spite of the First World War and the Great Depression, those years in many ways marked the end of America’s national innocence. His characters included WASPs, Jews, Irishmen, Yankees, and African Americans. Each of them was unique, and most were fundamentally decent people who believed they would succeed through hard work and pluck.

And succeed they did. Even Jabez Stone, who sells his soul to the devil in “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” is not so much “a bad man as an unlucky one.” There was room for him, too, in Benét’s America.

That doesn’t mean Benét was naive. The characters in “Everybody Was Very Nice,” the story of a disintegrating marriage, prefigure the empty suburbanites of John Cheever’s mid-century fiction. “The Devil and Daniel Webster” deals with the struggles a great man faces when he is tempted to replace duty with personal ambition. “William Reilly and the Fates” is the story of a young midwestern journalist whose bedrock faith in Mom, Apple Pie, and the American Way is challenged when he gains insight into the interconnectedness of humanity during an afternoon at a very curious carnival.

And Benét’s masterpiece, “By the Waters of Babylon,” perfectly prefigures the horror of nuclear warfare decades before the atomic bomb was developed. I reread that story a few months ago, more than eighty years after it was written. Every word still rings true. The language is contemporary. You could still almost use it as a street map to find your way around lower Manhattan. Benét didn’t fool himself about the dreadful possibilities inherent in humankind’s self-destructiveness, but his eternal optimism breaks through in the last lines, when the narrator realizes that the Place of the Gods destroyed in the Great Burning was really a city of men:

And when I am chief priest…we shall go to the Place of the Gods—the place newyork…We shall look for the images of the gods and find the god ASHING and the others—the gods Lincoln and Biltmore and Moses. But they were men who built the city, not gods or demons…They were men who were here before us. We must build again.

Behind the elegant simplicity of Benét’s language is a sophisticated mind and an original point of view. If I could bring only one book to that proverbial desert island, I’d chose his collection of short stories Thirteen O’Clock: Stories of Several Worlds. Some of them—unfortunately, not all—are available on the internet. I recommend finding them.

More than 75 years after his death, we may have lost Benét’s innocent confidence in America. We shouldn’t lose him as well. Do not forget this writer.

nahant
By Jeff Musman, former Mass Humanities Board Member
2019 Governor’s Award in the Humanities Honoree

When I drive home from Boston and cross the mile-and-a-half causeway onto Nahant, it’s like entering a different world: a magical place, a fairy land, the transition point from chaos to calm. The island of Nahant is a refuge for me and its other residents, as it is for lots of wildlife. It’s been this way since I moved here 45 years ago, as it was long before I arrived, and I hope it will be far into the future.

Just out of law school and working at a firm in Boston, in 1974 I moved to Nahant with my wife at the time, two Samoyeds, and one Weimaraner—we needed more space than what we could afford in Boston. The dogs insisted. We stumbled upon Nahant quite by pleasant accident. We found ourselves in a rural village, both literally and figuratively within sight of the Boston skyline. We rented a house on Desmond Drive, at the very end of a dead-end street. We soon met the Desmonds across the street, the Desmonds down the street, and the Desmonds up the street. There were no sidewalks. Dogs could roam free…well almost free. The across-the-street Desmonds kept a flock of geese and duck that patrolled the neighborhood and terrorized and herded the dogs. It’s only they who truly roamed freely.

You’re surrounded by water on Nahant, with the causeway, known as the Lynnway, being the only way out. At one square mile, Nahant is the smallest island in Massachusetts. “On Nahant” is just as commonly said as “in Nahant.” Is Nahant an island? Sometimes, although technically it’s not: it’s a “tombolo,” a bar of sand or shingle joining an island to the mainland. Today it’s a peninsula connected by the man-made causeway started in the 1830s, running the length of Long Beach (as distinguished from Short Beach, about a quarter mile down the road). Before that, you could come here by steamboat, or across at low tide when that mile-and-a-half stretch becomes a land bridge. In the early twentieth century the trolley from Lynn provided easy transportation over the land bridge. Before that you were crossing it by foot, on horseback or horse-drawn wagons.

In the 17th century, after most of the trees had been cleared for building and heat, farmers would lead their cattle onto Nahant at low tide and let them graze for the day, using the ocean as a fence.

nahant

Fictional stories about “ice kings” abound these days, but later in the nineteenth century there lived in Nahant one Frederic Tudor, who made his fortune selling ice internationally, and he actually became known as the Ice King. He was, at one time, one of only three land owners of the island and it was he that set about reforesting Nahant, planting orchards and other trees throughout the island. He dedicated a portion of his land to create Maolis Garden, a “public” space that residents could pay a small entry fee to enjoy. The name comes from Siloam, a town mentioned in the New and Old Testaments, said to have a fountain to which Jesus sent a blind man to wash his eyes and regain his sight. Why the Ice King selected that name, spelled backwards, we’ll have to ask someone more knowledgeable. Luckily, there are many people like that here.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow summered in Nahant and wrote in his letters about Maolis Garden. U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge had an estate nearby. Many other notable people have lived in Nahant as well, many of them not named Henry. The most notable person at the moment is Calantha Sears. At 97 years of age, Calantha has a mind that most of us youngsters can only wish we had. Her knowledge of Nahant is encyclopedic.  Walk down any street on Nahant with her and she’ll tell you who lives there now, who lived there before, who lived there before that and what was there before anyone lived there.

In 1996, Nahant was in a financial crisis. Town Meeting considered selling the school that had been abandoned in 1982 when our 7th-12th-graders started being shipped to Swampscott for their education. They wanted the Nahant Historical Society to inspect the old school to see if there was anything worth saving before the school was sold and the building demolished. Under the shadow of the swinging wrecking ball, enter Calantha Sears and her “loyal few” that made up the Nahant Historical Commission and the Nahant Historical Society that Calantha had helped found years earlier. With her mentee, my partner, Lynne Spencer, they decided that it all must be preserved, the entire building. And it was. Today the old school has been restored and put into productive re-use as a thriving community center run by the Nahant Preservation Trust, the nonprofit created through the efforts to save it. It has received multiple preservation awards and contains the nationally recognized, award-winning Nahant Historical Society Museum.

Why am I telling you all this? Because it’s stories like these that Mass Humanities preserves, fosters, and helps tell the world about. I support Mass Humanities because local history like this, which you can find literally everywhere in Massachusetts, matters a great deal. It makes life more navigable, and more enjoyable. What would science be without the humanities? What would art be without the humanities? Politics? Democracy? The answer is unimaginable, almost.

Come visit Nahant, and read about it, and marvel at it like I do. There are many more stories, and many excellent sources for them, which can be found at the websites below. (I highly recommend Nahant on the Rocks.)

http://www.nahanthistory.org/giftshop.shtml#gpm2_2
http://www.nahantpreservationtrust.org/

The group in Cuba

By Denise Kaigler, Board Member, Mass Humanities

As soon as David Tebaldi (former Executive Director of Mass Humanities) announced during a board meeting that he was planning to lead his eighth trip to Cuba, I was in. Visiting the country has long been on my bucket list. But for Americans, traveling to Cuba isn’t a simple book-fly-relax experience. American tourists must apply to travel to Cuba under certain categories, such as education or humanitarian, and their itineraries have to include meetings with representatives of local charities and social service agencies. Thanks to Mass Humanities, we would be all set.

Traveling with Mass Humanities and ETA Cuba, our travel services provider, were 29 people representing California, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and even Jamaica. Excluding David, this was the first trip to Cuba for all of us. That alone made the experience incredibly special. We enjoyed experiencing many “firsts” together, and sharing countless unique moments.

cuba 2During our eight days in Cuba, our meticulously planned itinerary was divided between Havana and Cienfuegos. In Havana, we stayed at the storied Hotel Nacional, which overlooks Havana Bay and is known for the underground bunkers constructed during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the first three days, we talked with noted political scientist Rafael Hernandez about Cuba’s new constitution, explored the Old City (La Habana Vieja), enjoyed a rehearsal by the contemporary dance company Danza Combinatoria, visited the Muraleando community arts project (El Tanque), where we danced along with a traditional Cuban band, walked through Cuban history in the Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) and strolled along Paseo del Prado. For lunch and dinner, we were hosted by a selection of the few paladares (private restaurants often run out of the owners’ homes). Not surprisingly, the food was undeniably delicious!

cuba 3Leaving Havana, we stopped at Finca Vigia, the famed Ernest Hemingway Estate. We walked the grounds and saw Hemingway’s private writing studio where he penned The Old Man and the Sea. Arriving in Cienfuegos, we enjoyed a walking tour through its main square, Plaza Jose Martí, met with UNEAC, the Union of Artists and Writers, admired the city’s beautiful architecture, including the Tomas Terry Theatre, and heard a private performance by an incredibly talented string ensemble, Orquesta de Cuerdas, where we were invited up to dance during some of the selections.

cuba 5After two nights in Cienfuegos, we headed back to Havana where we would wind down our incredible Cuban adventure. On the way to the hotel, we stopped at Plaza de la Revolución and visited the outdoor marketplace. Later that day, we were instructed in Cuba’s second most popular game: dominoes. After dividing into teams and playing dominoes alongside local players, we enjoyed a group lunch where we discussed Cuba-US relations.

After lunch, we spent time in the Museo de la Revolución, which is housed inside the former Presidential Palace. Bullet holes from the March, 1957 attack on the palace remain eerily visible throughout. That evening, we were treated to a magnificent private performance by the Havana women’s chorus, Vocal Luna, where members of our group were invited up to sing alongside, and the entire group participated in a Q&A session about music education in Cuba.

Fittingly, our final day in Cuba was full of adventure and included a wonderful and very cool surprise. It began with a fantastic tour of Las Terrazas, a pioneering ecovillage and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve nestled in the Sierra del Rosario mountains west of Havana. And after changing and meeting in the hotel lobby to head to our final dinner, our surprise: parked alongside the hotel’s main entrance was a jaw-dropping line-up of several of those beautifully maintained vintage 1950s cars that would take us to the restaurant. (One was an Edsel!) We were like little kids, running around and trying to decide, based on the vibrant colors, which car we wanted to jump into. Being driven to our final dinner by a remnant of Cuba’s pre-Revolution days was definitely one of the many highlights of this incredible trip.

cuba 12

After dinner, we attended our final event–a spectacular theatre performance, Cuba Vibrai (Lizt Alphonsa Dance Cuba)–at the gorgeously restored Gran Teatro de la Habana. This show is so wonderful that photos and videos of the performance are strictly forbidden.

Visiting Cuba and seeing–experiencing–Cuban life first-hand shattered my preconceived notion about this communist-ruled country and its approximately 11 million citizens. While there is poverty throughout, Cubans embrace the country’s Spanish heritage, openly share its storied past, and enthusiastically look toward its future. The country’s multiethnic culture was on display everywhere we went, pulling us in and leaving us wanting more. It was wonderful to see children laughing and playing, and adults singing and dancing. We were invited into every aspect of their world, their lives. There was no question we couldn’t ask (and we asked a lot) and no experience we couldn’t enjoy. There was an incredible vibrancy I didn’t expect to see and feel. I was engaged in ways I never imagined. Although I have visited numerous countries around the world, my week in Cuba was one of the most enlightening, educational and enjoyable experiences of my life.

On behalf of the entire November 2018 group, thank you Mass Humanities for making this incredible experience possible.

NYC

Near the end of Booth Tarkington’s 1921 novel Alice Adams, the twenty-something social-climbing heroine realizes her family is destitute and she must set about earning her own living. Her broke and broken father tries to be sympathetic about his daughter’s shattered dreams of love and social status, but she refuses to dwell in the past, saying, “Don’t you think, since we do have to go on, we ought at least to have learned some sense about how to do it?” The critic Thomas Mallon damned the novel with faint praise in The Atlantic in 2004, calling it “a small bit of great” within an otherwise mediocre ouevre. He failed to notice that Alice expresses the same sentiment that would be considered the height of existentialism 17 years later, when Samuel Beckett wrote in his novel Murphy: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

We don’t read Tarkington much today, although in his time he was a best-selling, critically respected author and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. But his stories about ordinary people, his straightforward, realistic narrative style, and his acceptance that the business of America is indeed business have worked to consign his writings to the scrapheap of literature known as “middlebrow.”

Middlebrow is defined as “easily accessible” in terms of art, usually literature, and is also used  to describe people who use the arts to acquire culture and ascend in class. Middlebrow focuses on middle class people and middle class issues. Over the course of the 20th century, so-called “highbrow” critics and authors–think Virginia Woolf and Dwight Macdonald–often spurned these realistic narratives in favor of experimental post-modern literary styles. Underscoring their disdain was an increasingly condescending attitude toward the middle class and its aspirations to bourgeois culture. As Tom Wolfe observed in 1989, “The intelligentsia have always had contempt for the realistic novel–a form that wallows so enthusiastically in the dirt of everyday life and the dirty secrets of class envy and that, still worse, is so easily understood and obviously relished by the mob, i.e., the middle class.”

Indeed, many scholars dismissed the middle class and the middlebrow in words that sound a lot like those of the precocious, pretentious little Fanchon in Tarkington’s Penrod: “How boorjaw.”

Fast-forward to today, and the editors of Slate Magazine are claiming that the late 2000s and early 2010s can be considered the true “golden age of middlebrow art” (although I think they’re overstating their case). Certainly novels such as Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (2009) and televisions shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire reflect middlebrow values by presenting their audiences with stimulating stories while raising complicated social and moral issues.

But here’s the thing: we shouldn’t forget the middlebrow writers of an earlier time–the Booth Tarkingtons, Stephen Vincent Benets, Edna Ferbers, Fannie Hursts and others–who presented their middle-class readers with issues that continue to concern us today. Their work is in danger of being forgotten, and it shouldn’t be.

My interest in middlebrow literature focuses on the period between approximately 1920 and 1960, the eras discussed by Gordon Hutner in his pathbreaking What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960 (2009). Thousands of works of middlebrow fiction were published in the United States in those decades. They share a few common characteristics: the writing style is almost always realistic, not experimental; “work” is presented as a means through which characters can earn enough money to survive, not in Marxist terms, or, for that matter, in terms of the late twentieth-century attitude toward work as a source of personal fulfillment; little was off-limits in terms of subject matter. Indeed, the range of topics they discuss is extraordinary and often resonates with what is happening in our own world. Fannie Hurst’s 1921 short story “She Walks in Beauty,” for example, appears on the surface to be about a conventional upper-middle-class widow whose daughter resists her mother’s remarriage; in fact, the daughter is trying to keep her stepfather from discovering that his new wife is a morphine addict. Edna Ferber’s 1926 Show Boat takes on issues of miscegenation, gambling addiction, prostitution, and spousal abandonment; her 1911-13 short-story cycle, collected as Roast Beef Medium, features a divorced single mother who works as a traveling saleswoman and whose experiences will resonate with many modern women. Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) is about a World War II veteran who suffers from PTSD and his struggle between establishing work/life balance and pursuing the professional success required of men in his generation.

Other middlebrow fiction takes on issues of race, religion, ethnicity, social class, regional differences, and relationships between parents and children. Work and the meaning of success and failure is a frequent theme.

In this series of blogs, I’ll discuss some mid-twentieth-century middlebrow writers worth reading. I’ll start with Fannie Hurst, Edna Ferber, and Stephen Vincent Benet, but there are many more almost-forgotten authors waiting to be rediscovered. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear from you.

Brian Boyles joined Mass Humanities as its new Executive Director on October 15, 2018. For the last twelve years Brian worked at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH), Louisiana’s humanities council, including the last four as Vice President of Content and Publisher/Editor of LEH’s award-winning magazine, Louisiana Cultural Vistas.

“Brian impressed us with his energy, enthusiasm, and practical grasp of the humanities,” said Hilda Ramirez, a member of the search committee. “His record of accomplishment in engaging diverse groups of people was most impressive,” she added.

Brian is a native of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Tulane University and began his career working in publishing at Simon & Schuster. He and his wife have two young children together.

Brian sat down with Tim Binkert, Communications Specialist, to talk about his new position.

What’s been the driving focus of your career so far? What’s been your #1 goal?

I found early on that there was a real reward in being the person who connects people. There’s no shortage of brilliant, hardworking people in the humanities, but the nature of the work is often solitary, demanding, and under-resourced. That goes for scholars, but also for the staff at a small town museum or a filmmaker editing in the wee hours. Someone needs to advocate for these folks, to make sure they know about each other, and to channel their work to new audiences. My goal has been to make these connections so that more people can enjoy and benefit from the humanities.

How do you think your experience at LEH will help you in your role at Mass Humanities?

Humanities councils respond to the particular needs and cultures of their home states. In Louisiana, we faced challenge after challenge, from Katrina to coastal land loss to the legacy of slavery, and time and again we found ways for the humanities to serve local communities. We listened, built new ways to connect scholarship with the public, and sought resources to give rural, urban, and suburban audiences the chance to explore their past and imagine a better future. Massachusetts is a much different place, with globally renowned humanities institutions and its own rich culture, but it’s certainly a place with its own unique challenges. I’ll approach our work with the most important skill I picked up in Louisiana—the ability to listen.

What drew you to this organization? To Massachusetts?

The work of Mass Humanities under the leadership of David Tebaldi set the gold standard for humanities councils. I came here to join in this long-standing dedication to widening the audience through meaningful, brave projects and programming. As our nation wrestles so vigorously with its identity, I truly feel that Massachusetts has a pivotal role to play, much as it has since the birth of the republic, in shaping public discourse and finding solutions.

What do you look forward to the most in starting this job?

The list is pretty long, but I’m especially excited to work with this staff and our board. We have talented, creative people in our office, and I look forward to helping them shape our initiatives. I’m also eager to learn the state with the guidance of board members who are experts on literally every corner of Massachusetts.

What will your approach be in the first year here? Can you let us know a little about the direction you’d like to take the organization in, your vision for it?

It’s important for me to understand the ecosystem of the humanities in Massachusetts. Who’s doing great work? How do we engage different communities? Who are our partners, and how can we meet new ones? I need to get to know the spatial and cultural geographies. I have young children, and my wife and I want to explore the state with them. For this first year, and probably every year, I plan to cover a lot of ground, meet as many people as possible, and eat a lot of local food. (I’m fairly sure I’ll see the Celtics in the Finals this season, too.)

These experiences, along with David’s mentorship, the guidance of our board and the input of our partners, will shape a shared vision for our work. What’s clear is that Mass Humanities enjoys a great reputation, established through our grants program, the impact of the Clemente Course, the vivid content of Mass Moments, and initiatives like Reading Frederick Douglass and FAIR. This is a vital organization. My hope is that we link these pieces together in intentional ways so that a child who participates in our family literacy program becomes a high school student who uses Mass Moments to write her AP History paper. I want to see even more Clemente scholars, and find ways that they become project directors at Mass Humanities-funded museums, or direct a documentary film we support, or read Douglass in front of the State House. My great fortune is to join an organization where so many of these connections are already underway. Let’s keep that momentum building for Massachusetts.

west philadelphia man

In a previous post, I discussed how approximately 9 out of 10 poor Americans are patriotic; despite facing very difficult circumstances and a system that often seems to care little for them, they believe in the greatness and even superiority of the United States. I offered some answers as to why based on extensive research in Alabama and Montana and in-depth interviews of 60 people who, though struggling in financial terms, shared a love of country. The discussion drew from my new book, Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country (Stanford University Press 2018).

Not all the people I met were intensely patriotic, though. By design, I also looked for people who could give me a different perspective. I spoke with two people in Birmingham, Alabama:  Jake, a 24 year old white male just out of jail and sitting in a bus station, and Michelle, a 50 year old African American woman who quit working at McDonalds after 21 years and was now living in a women’s shelter. Another was Kevin, a young white male in Billings, Montana working seasonally in construction and whom I met in a laundromat (all names have been changed). The goal was not to generalize from the three interviews but rather to identify key sentiments and ideas. Why did they feel unattached to their country? What feelings did the United States evoke in them?

Cynicism and disappointment

The main themes were cynicism and disappointment. They described with scorn the country, its ideals, and those who believe in them. Jake was perhaps the most direct:

I just don’t like the connotation of saying like, you know, we’re the greatest country on earth…that makes me think about preppy guys at school that play football and shit, you know? Greatest country on earth: these guys suck…this country is second place; this country is third place.

He talked about feeling apathy toward the political system, and of how the American flag reminded him of “bullies…yeah, yeah. And the way we are about wars—‘F with us and you’ll find out what happens.’ So much for the most generous country on earth!” He recalled the pleasures of disrespecting the flag with his punk bandmates.

When asked about the national anthem, he described it as annoying, “’cause it’s an annoying song.” As to fighting for the country, he dismissed the concept outright: “I value my life much more than the idea of, of you know, utopia America…Kinda like the Desperate Housewives picture of living…it’s kind of disgusting to me.”

America as utopia: thousands of miles away, Kevin echoed the same idea. Those who are poor and believe in America, he reasoned, “are buying into what America used to be…that 1950s idyllic…idyllic suburbia white picket fence.” As to those who feel America is God’s country, he reminded me that Thomas Paine was not a Christian, and that Thomas Jefferson extolled the virtues of a separate church and state. Perhaps life was good in the 1950s, he said, but not now.

A struggle for survival 

What is life like now, then? It’s primarily a struggle for survival. As Michelle put it, “If it was up to me, personally, I would go to another country.” She was fed up with working so hard and still having no money: “Other states has [sic] better jobs than in the United States”. If her kids were to “decide to get up and we all ship away, that’s what we…that’s what I prefer to do.” Her job as a manager at a McDonalds paid so little that she, and her entire crew, went on strike and walked off the job.

All three described a country in decline, one of broken promises and people hurting. There were strong emotions and intensity in their words. As it turns out, however, they were not necessarily complete outliers: their more patriotic counterparts also at times voiced worries about the direction of the country. Several lamented the poverty afflicting so many Americans. Fiona, a white middle-aged woman in a Montana laundromat, stressed how “we have starving children right here in America that need to be taken care of.” Sitting next to her, Oscar, a Native American elder, agreed: “We’ve got kids over here,” he said, “that are starving to death, ain’t got no family, ain’t got no money.” Indeed, as Alicia, a thirty-year-old black woman in a homeless shelter in Birmingham working on her GED, put it, things seem to be falling apart. She worried that the American people had lost their way, and that, as several others also felt, the “whole nation should get back to the Bible and do what God tells us to do.”

By and large, America’s economically worst-off are extremely patriotic, but there are doubts, resentments, and even fears. As I left my interview sites, I wondered who was more accurate: the cynics and disillusioned, or those who still believe, wholeheartedly, in their country? Will the power of America’s promise eventually die out, as inequality and disparities continue to rise? Or will America return to its former glory? In my next post, I turn to Europe for some comparisons and final insights.

kpw 3

The year 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the establishment of Plymouth; planning to mark this milestone has been underway for some time. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is excited to mark Boston’s 400th birthday in 2030. Several organizations have coalesced to celebrate multiple historical moments marking the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution in Massachusetts.

But something is missing: there is no comparable effort to mark the 350th anniversary of King Philip’s War in 2025. Indeed, the war goes almost unacknowledged on the cultural landscape of Boston.

Metacom
Typical representation of Metacom in Native garb and holding a musket

King Philip’s War was a bloody conflict in the 1670s that involved every New England colony and all the peoples of the Algonquian nation. By the 1670s there were more than 50,000 English colonists living in New England, and they were steadily encroaching on land held by Native people. When the chief of the Wampanoag died while in captivity in Plymouth Colony, his brother Metacom (known to the English as King Philip) became determined to drive the colonists out. Over the course of 1675-76, both sides mounted attacks against each other. Colonists would destroy an Indian village and Indians would respond by burning down a colonial settlement. Colonist forces carried out multiple massacres.

Eventually the English won out, killing Metacom and interning many Christianized New England Indians on Deer Island in Boston Harbor during the winter of 1675-76, where roughly half of some 900 internees died of starvation and exposure. About 45 Indians were publicly executed on Boston Common. Many were sold into slavery.

Yet this history remains almost invisible in Boston. Why? One reason is the power of white America to identify who and what is important and to omit events that complicate the narrative. The strength of the settler-colonialist version of history is enormous. Second is the lasting belief among whites in the Myth of the Vanishing Indian: that the Indian faced certain doom as a relic of the past who had to give way to westward expansion and the advance of civilization, to the point that many people believe there are no more “Indians,” or at least no more “real Indians.” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, writing in their book “All The Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths about Native Americans, declare: “No myth about Native people is as pervasive, pernicious, or self-serving as the myth of the vanishing Native…”

Indians have fought to mark the history of King Philip’s War, organizing every October a Sacred Paddle, among other efforts. The 2017 flyer for this program states: “We remember the ancestors’ sacrifice and survival through ceremony on Deer Island, a Sacred Paddle through Boston Harbor up the Charles River and a walk from Brighton to Natick,” where the day ends in prayer. Christine DeLucia argues in her important new book, Memory Lands–King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast: “The ability to posit ongoing Native place-connections in these seemingly conquered or ceded spaces is…a key function of tribal reclamations of heritage through movement, performance, and ritual.”

sacred paddle
Participant pushes off from shore during a Sacred Paddle on the Charles River

I think there’s an opportunity to do more. The aftermath of the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville has projected public history into an unprecedented national conversation and visibility. This has gone beyond the critical examination of Confederate memorials to a general reexamination of what is marked and what is unmarked on the cultural landscape. Here in Boston, Mayor Walsh has pronounced his strong support for the placement of public art outside Faneuil Hall to highlight the fact the Peter Faneuil, who gave the hall to the town of Boston, profited from the slave trade. A broad array of civic leaders have strongly endorsed the development of a memorial on Boston Common to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King and a related learning center elsewhere in the city.

On Boston Common colonists publicly executed Indians brought into Boston as prisoners as part of King Philip’s War. A public history or public art installation could introduce Bostonians and all those who visit the Common to this crucial moment in colonial history. There might not be a better place than the path of the Freedom Trail to commemorate King Philip’s War. Because the Common has such limited space, another possible venue would be Christopher Columbus Park on Boston’s waterfront.

A less costly but still significant step would be a public reading of William Apess’s 1836 eulogy on King Philip in Boston. For the last ten years, Mass Humanities has supported public readings of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro, just prior to July 4th at the Shaw/54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial on Boston Common and across the Commonwealth. The speech is edited into several short paragraphs, and anyone who chooses, from civic leaders to ordinary citizens, reads a passage.

apess
William Apess

The same could be done with Apess’s eulogy. Apess, a Pequot and Methodist minister, declared in the eulogy that Philip “…died a martyr to his cause, though unsuccessful, yet as glorious as the American Revolution.” He called out the colonists: “It was a common thing for all the Pilgrims to curse the Indians, according to the order of their priests. It is also wonderful how they prayed, that they should pray the bullet through the Indians’ heart and their souls down into hell. If I had any faith in such prayers, I should begin to think that soon we should all be gone. However, if that is the way they pray, that is, bullets through people’s hearts, I hope they will not pray for me; I should rather be excused.” (The full eulogy can be found here.)

In Boston and across the nation, the only way to begin to overcome a deeply racist past is to acknowledge it honestly and openly. It is my hope that we can launch a “Reading King Philip’s Eulogy” program with a broad partnership in November, 2019, as a prelude to the Thanksgiving season. Perhaps the hatred we saw unleashed in Charlottesville can be countered with a more truthful recounting of our history. Let’s work to remember King Philip’s War.

Martin Blatt will be taking part in a conversation on how to memorialize the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in Plymouth on 10/25 at Suffolk University. More information and register here

gardner chair
“The Biggest Chair in the World”

Gardner, a town in Central Mass just west of Fitchburg, was once known as Chair City. The furniture industry started here in the mid-19th century and by 1910 had grown to 20 chair factories producing four million chairs per year, employing thousands. Major companies like Heywood-Wakefield, Conant-Ball and Nichols & Stone made heirloom-quality furniture—carefully handcrafted pieces meant to be passed down from generation to generation.

Then deindustrialization hit. Jobs shifted to the American South, then South Asia. Heywood-Wakefield closed in 1979, Conant-Ball in 1980. Nichols & Stone lasted until 2008, when it was wiped out by the financial crisis. Hundreds of people in Gardner were terminated, left with no way to use their skills.

Chair City now exists in name only—Gardner produces only a tiny fraction of the furniture it once did.

This, of course, is a story that’s been repeated over and over in America and elsewhere. Globalization, deindustrialization, and automation have continued apace for decades and will only pick up pace as time goes on. This represents a pressing problem for democracy. As the profits of globalization flow to a tiny elite, they wield power disproportionately, while the workers left behind are disillusioned and fearful that their own real incomes and those of their children will continue to stagnate or worse. This has led to middle classes around the world experiencing an increasingly pervasive sense of dissatisfaction and unfairness—which, sadly, has in turn led to the scapegoating of immigrants and minorities. Hence the rise of Trump in America, Brexit in Britain, National Front in France, Alternative for Germany, and on, and on.

One answer to this darkening trend is provided by the humanities: what if, in the towns abandoned by industry, we used history to help people make sense of their situation? To help people heal? That’s precisely what Central Mass native and Mass Humanities grantee Tracie Pouliot has done.

True local

A couple of years ago Ms. Pouliot opened the Chair City Community Workshop in Gardner. There, with help from a Mass Humanities grant, she launched the Chair City Oral History Series, a collection of reminiscences collected from former employees of Nichols & Stone.

Gardner locals learn how to use the letterpress
Residents learn how to use the letterpress

Each interview was converted into a handmade book, printed in editions of about 400 copies on letterpress, using handset type, polymer plates and woodcuts. The finished books are given to local people who worked in the furniture industry, and copies are donated to the Gardner library and museum. The workshop’s art center houses the production of the books, as well as providing a space where residents can rebuild the social networks that were lost when the factories closed. Community members can learn how to use the letterpress, bind books and construct the finished product.

“My family was a part of the Gardner furniture-making tradition,” Ms. Pouliot said. “My dad worked there for most of his career; I worked there summers between college. When it closed in 2008, that was really the end of an era, as it was the last large furniture factory in the city. I immediately knew that this would be a big deal for my family, and the community as a whole.”

Ms. Pouliot received a bachelor of fine art degree from Pratt Institute in New York and a master of art in community art from Maryland Institute College of Art. The events in Gardner brought her home, though, where she was determined to make a difference.

group binding
Pouliot (second from left) and volunteers binding books

“With my background, the project came to be a series of books made the old fashioned way. This wasn’t the type of project that I’d create alone in a studio somewhere. Because Gardner is full of people who take great pride in making things, and because the loss of the factories meant many people had also lost a center for social and creative life, the project had to take place in Gardner and the community had to be invited to help make the books.”

Ms. Pouliot was able to interview twelve people in 2009, a year after the factory closed. That led to a book-making process that is still continuing today.

Mass Humanities Board Member Glynda Benham, who has first-hand experience with this project, said, “For the people whose stories are captured, it’s not just about having their story in print, it’s also about the heartfelt effort that goes into the making of each book: the making of the wood cut of a piece of furniture for the cover; the setting of the typeface for the special quotes in each book; the quality assurance of inspecting the printed copies; the collating and punching; the sewing of the binding; and chopping the edges on a 100-year-old guillotine. This is a process that honors memories, and mirrors the love and detail that Nichols & Stone employees put into each piece of furniture they made. This is what makes it special.”

Denis’s story

One of the people interviewed for the book series is Denis. He started working in a furniture factory right out of high school as a “floor boy”; three decades later he was the plant manager at the last large furniture factory in town. He was one of the last people out when the factory closed after everything inside was auctioned off. It was incredibly difficult “to see people tear apart what everyone worked so hard to build.”

When he says “everyone,” he means generations. Nichols & Stone had been in business for 151 years.

The Mass Humanities grant to Ms. Pouliot’s organization was intended to support two things: the creation of the books themselves and, importantly, public discussions about them and why the project existed. This is where the public humanities shine.

B&W Gardner Museum
First panel discussion, Denis on far left (photo credit Paul Gingras)

The first panel discussion the Chair City Community Workshop organized included Denis, two additional furniture workers named Barbara and Dale, and Dr. Robert Forrant, a labor historian from UMass Lowell. The venue was packed and old friends reconnected for the first time in years. The former furniture workers talked about their pride in the product they made, what working alongside each other meant to them, their heartbreak when the factory closed, and their deep regret that the work that defined Chair City is gone.

A woman raised her hand: “Why did the factories all close?” Instead of turning to Dr. Forrant, Denis and his co-workers explained what happened. They talked about how banks and investors limited access to funds; how despite technology upgrades and the level of skill in Gardner, production moved overseas where labor was cheaper; and how the financial crisis dealt a final blow.

“Working class people across the country have these experiences and knowledge, but it often goes unacknowledged,” said Ms. Pouliot. “As Denis and his colleagues talked about deindustrialization, financialization and neoliberal trade policies, the whole room nodded along.” Dr. Forrant added that workers in blue collar towns like Gardner are made to feel like it was their fault; that along with heartbreak and hardship comes undeserved shame, substance abuse, physical and mental health problems. He affirmed economic and political trends the workers had experienced; he validated their knowledge and experience.

denis signing book
Denis signing a book

That night the heartbreak and hardship became public, and so did the causes of deindustrialization. “Not only could we finally talk about the mysterious policy decisions and economic forces that had changed our lives,” said Ms. Pouliot, “but we realized we have the ability to investigate, understand and heal from these issues. As a community we have the power to shift the narrative.”

Gardner has an important story to tell. It’s a story that resonates across the world, and the process of telling the story is rich with the potential to solve these problems and create a productive, and hopeful, future.

Mass Humanities Support

The Gardner Museum was awarded a $4,000 grant for a community art and discussion project that engaged former chair manufacturing workers in producing 400 copies of eleven oral histories recorded in 2009, after the closing of the city’s last chair manufacturer.

frederick douglass

Every summer, Mass Humanities supports public readings of Frederick Douglass’s famous Fourth of July address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” in communities around the state. Grants for up to $2,000 are available on a rolling basis. Click here to learn more.

People of all ages take turns reading parts of the speech until they’ve read all of it. But why? What’s the purpose of reading Douglass’s speech in public? What happens when we read it together? And how is the speech relevant today? We reached out to five people actively engaged in organizing their community’s Douglass reading to get their thoughts. Enjoy!

CEDRIC ARNO

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I believe the purpose in Reading Frederick Douglass’s speech is the power a person gets in telling his oppressor, “I’ve had enough.” It’s a chance to publicly demonstrate truth to power. The speech is filled with eloquent, rhythmic patterns transcribing the landscape of America as a slave viewed it, written for those who didn’t know the words or have the platform to say them. It’s a public condemnation of slavery and a bellowing of, “I know what you are doing, I see what you are doing, I’m saying something about it.”

Worcester RFD
Cedric Arno reading at the Worcester Douglass event

The hypocrisy shown to slaves in US history is the same shown to Native Americans, to the Irish, to many more. These are commonalities that can bring Americans together. We can fight injustices together if we hear our common struggles. So reading the speech out loud and in public has a second purpose: to bring us together to create a more perfect union.

The speech is relevant because of an unresolved illness that plagues America to this day: what to do with the slave, the Negro, the black man? Slavery was America’s greatest illness. The enslaved mentality is still perpetrated onto black people, brown people—anyone whom the power structure views as “other.” In that way, the speech couldn’t be more relevant.

Cedric Arno is the Executive Producer of Music Mania Television and plays a key role in Future Focus Media Co-op and Youth Training Institute in Worcester. Email Cedric.musicmaniatv@gmail.com or visit http://bit.ly/2szLaW3 for more information.

LEE BLAKE

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When we read Frederick Douglass out loud, we listen to the power of his words echo off the walls and around the room. It’s a powerful thing to listen to different people reading his words and questions, some of which our society still struggles with just as much now as in 1852. After the speech, we take time to reflect on contemporary issues such as immigration, prison reform, and social and racial justice. We pause in our commemoration of Douglass’s life to ask: what issues would he be championing now? What should we be addressing and how?

New Bedford RFD
A woman reading at the New Bedford Douglass event

The speech could not be more relevant in a time when white supremacy and racism are on the uptake; when people seeking sanctuary at our country’s borders are stopped and turned back; when women are once again losing control of our bodies through federal actions. We don’t just want to celebrate the past; we want to use the past to light the way to a more inclusive future.

Lee Blake serves as the President of the New Bedford Historical Society and Director of the Campus Compact, University of MA Dartmouth. Email info@nbhistoricalsociety.org or visit nbhistoricalsociety.org or more information.

DAVID HARRIS

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On this, the tenth reading of the speech, an event originally entitled “Reading Frederick Douglass in the Era of Barack Obama,” I am reminded of Obama’s words shortly after his election: “I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle.” At the time I wrote in the Boston Globe that “the true meaning of that election is not that we are relieved from talking about race but that we are relieved to talk about it.” Last year was an equally dramatic reading as we entered the era of Donald Trump. Reading Frederick Douglass in the era of Donald Trump has certainly put the lie to post-racialism. Indeed the need conduct the reading is heightened by the tenor of today’s talk about race. In light of the growing intolerance that characterizes a great deal of public discourse, it is all the more important not only to reflect on Douglass’s words but to do so in community.

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Boston Reading Frederick Douglass event

In that Globe article I quoted with optimism Douglass’s words: “While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.” Although it is difficult, if not impossible, to cheer in the tendencies of our age, these days I find my anchor in Langston Hughes’ Let America be America Again.

…Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

 

(It never was America to me.)…

 

…O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

It is in this spirit that we gather again to read Frederick Douglass.

David Harris is the Managing Director of the Charles Hamilton Institute for Racial Justice, Harvard Law School and former chair of Mass Humanities board of directors. 

WENDY JOSEPH

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The purpose of the public reading, in my opinion, is to educate and inspire. Oftentimes people have never heard of this speech; the prose is wonderful, and the message makes them pause to reflect. Communal readings are also an essential part of place-making, whether it’s a physical space or a community coming together. When we read it together, the words ring out; you feel the genius of the words and the message. As one teenager said, “I never feel as smart as when I’m reading the words of Frederick Douglass aloud.”

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Person reading at a Lynn Douglass event

In terms of relevance: every year (and this will be my eighth year), we say, “It can’t get more relevant”–but it does. Whether it is gun violence, police brutality, civil war monuments issues–each year as we gather our songs for social justice (which is how we begin our program) we keep what has happened the previous year in mind.

In addition, Douglass offers us insights into the hypocrisy of political and religious powers by speaking the truth. The enduring message from Douglass is that knowledge and education is the people’s best way to get to the truth. Once you know the truth, you can raise your voice for change.

Wendy Joseph co-chairs the LynnDouglass200 Bicentennial Committee. Email wendy_joseph@mac.com or visit http://bit.ly/2xXtnNw for more information.

LYNN SMITH

Lynn smith cropped
We read Douglass’s speech out loud for two reasons: to build community, and to honor the words by reading them with witnesses. The very act of putting aside time, committing to being together, and making a space where everyone is welcome elevates the experience. Additionally, saying something out loud, with witnesses, and owning it as a community can change the world. With Douglass, it’s knowing how he struggled to learn to read and write; understanding his commitment to knowledge; and empathizing with the fact that even with his dignity, people assumed he was ignorant and incapable of oratory of any kind. “Oppression makes a wise man mad. Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man?” We read, and we watch each other’s heads go up and down, and we are one in thought.

RFD-Brockton
Brockton Reading Frederick Douglass event

In terms of Douglass’s relevance to the current day, he hits on themes of isolationism quite well: “No nation can shut itself up from the surrounding world.” But he also gives hope, saying, “I do not despair of this country…the day will come when feuds will end, and foes will change to faithful friend.” So don’t despair! Come together, share in community and humanity, and create a beloved community.

Lynn Smith is the President of Frederick Douglass Neighborhood Association in Brockton and a Brockton Historical Society volunteer. Email fdnabrockton@gmail.com or visit douglassbrockton.org for more information.

david tebaldi

I’m going, friends. Long ago I found my calling in the public humanities and have been the director of a state humanities council ever since—39 years total, 33 here in my native Massachusetts. This fall I will retire.

I’ve been reflecting on my retirement a lot lately, which I suppose is typical. On the one hand, I have the usual mixed feelings about stepping away: Mass Humanities has been my life’s work for such a long time and it’s been such an enormously enriching and gratifying experience, I’ll miss it. The job has given me uncountable opportunities to work with a vast array of smart, interesting, and creative people who understand and appreciate the civic value of the humanities and for that I will be forever grateful.

But on the other hand, there’s another, very different reason for my mixed feelings about stepping away: the state of the humanities, the country, the world.

Make-America-Think-AgainI’ll be brief in listing the woes. The fragmentation of American society is well documented, with yawning and seemingly unbridgeable partisan divides. We lack any vision of a common good. Civility and decorum are best observed in history books. Cynicism—perhaps justifiably—is rampant. It is not uncommon to read articles on the disintegration of American community and the rise of isolation and loneliness. Globally, racism and nationalism are on the rise, anti-democratic strongmen are locking themselves into power, and above it all, climate change towers on the not-so-distant horizon. And when we need the arts and humanities more than ever, the Trump Administration wants to eliminate the NEA and NEH (again).

This means two things to me. One, I feel like state humanities councils have, to a certain extent, failed in their mission to inform and enlighten public discourse. The search for a common good is the domain of the humanities. History, literature, philosophy, and cultural studies provide us with the means of understanding each other, and ourselves. The humanities—particularly public issue-oriented programs like those organized and sponsored by state humanities councils—are supposed to provide broader context, help make connections between disparate elements, and build community and mutual understanding.

Inadequate funding is a major factor here: we have never been able to achieve a large enough scale on a shoestring. We also spend too much of our time preaching to the choir. Everyone reading this already agrees with our mission wholeheartedly. What we need to do is find ways to engage as broad an audience as possible and effectively demonstrate how the humanities strengthen the civic, cultural, and social fabric of society.

Two—and stay with me here—despite all of that, I am extremely optimistic for the future. I believe with all my heart that we’ll get over this moment, reverse this trend; that the future is not one of intolerance, violence and despair but exactly the opposite: one of civility, diversity, morality, and free expression, where the humanities help ensure that opposing sides maintain respect for each other, that people with different viewpoints are sought out and welcomed, that ethical principles are refined and followed. I refuse to believe that what we see now will be our fate.

I don’t believe this is pie-in-the-sky thinking, either. The evidence for optimism is everywhere. New research challenges the myth of the unhappy, underemployed humanities graduate, as their salary and job satisfaction levels (it turns out) are fully on par with other majors. More and more humanities institutions are turning outward—reaching out to the public and embracing their role as communicators and defenders of a civic ideal. Full-throated defenses of the humanities as fostering, as de Tocqueville said, “Poetry, eloquence, wit, imagination, depth of thought”—the lifeblood of democracy—are appearing in the media on a regular basis. We seem to be moving away from the assumption that the humanities are a frivolity, a nice to have, not a need to have. They are essential.

Even more importantly, I gain optimism from what I can only call a general trend toward diversity across all areas of society. It feels like the spirit of inclusivity—the belief that the humanities are for everyone, not just a few—is more widespread and more vigorous than ever. This is a good thing. As a society we seem to be experiencing a critical mass of increased awareness of barriers, a broad desire to do something about it, and crucially, an understanding of how to make lasting changes. Proof of this is omnipresent, from #MeToo and #TimesUp to Black Lives Matter, trans acceptance and much, much more.

Frederick Douglass reading
Boston reading of Frederick Douglass’s speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

This is precisely the direction Mass Humanities has gone in in the last ten years: the Clemente Course in the Humanities, Engaging New Audiences grant-making theme, and Reading Frederick Douglass events have all been designed with the goal of increasing access to humanities programming and moving the conversation about equity and justice to the fore.

I’m happy to announce that to ensure the continuation of this programming emphasis, the Mass Humanities Board of Directors has established The David Tebaldi Fund and is seeking contributions to it. This fund will, in a sense, allow me to continue these efforts into the future. I’m humbled to have a fund named after me and can only hope it helps the public humanities remain essential to civic life—for everyone—in Massachusetts.

As I go, I want to say thank you for your friendship and support. Mass Humanities exists only through collaborations, partnerships, and contributions of time, talent, and treasure from people like you. I’m hanging up my spurs, but I’ve never been more hopeful.

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