Provocative Works on Racial Injustice and Health Inequity from Recent HI Visitors

The Humanities Institute is privileged to welcome outstanding visiting scholars, performers, and activists to UT each year as part of various programs, including the Cline Centennial Professorship in the Humanities, the Distinguished Visiting Lecture Series, and the Difficult Dialogues Public Forums, among others. We have gathered together a few resources by recent visitors that speak to racial injustice and health inequities in a number of different formats, from books and articles to video and music.

Rita Charon 

In September 2016, the Humanities Institute welcomed Rita Charon as its ninth C.L. and Henriette Cline Centennial Visiting Professor. Charon is Professor of Medicine and founder and Executive Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. Her Distinguished Public Lecture for the Humanities Institute, entitled “The Shock of Attention: Bodies, Stories, and Healing,” can be viewed at this link

Upcoming Event: On Thursday, July 16, 2020, at 1pm CDT, Charon will be participating in an online conversation hosted by the Modern Language Association entitled “Medicine, Narrative, Power, and Pandemic,” along with physician and fiction writer Aakriti Pandita. They will respond to the questions, “How can narrative and the humanities help us understand this pandemic? And how can they make medicine smarter, more equitable, and more effective?” Register for the event HERE.

Alondra Nelson

In 2018, Alondra Nelson delivered a Humanities Institute Symposium keynote lecture on her book The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome (Beacon Press, 2016) as part of the Distinguished Visiting Lecture Series. President of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and the Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, she has produced a number of recent works that speak to intersections between race, social inequality, health care, and activism:

Article: In “Society after Pandemic,” Nelson asks, “How do the social conditions exposed, exacerbated, and created by the novel coronavirus demand that we substantively rethink our ideas of society and, therefore, some of the prevailing assumptions of social science?” This is the inaugural essay in the SSRC’s “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series.

Teaching resource: The #coronavirussyllabus is an open-access, living list of texts for teaching about Covid-19 in social, historical, and political context, from scholarly books and articles, to music, visual art, and film, to podcasts and videos. Nelson initiated this crowdsourcing effort with the Twitter hashtag #coronavirussyllabus, inviting contributions from around the globe and across a wide variety of disciplines.  

Video: Recently, Nelson participated in a virtual roundtable hosted by the Modern Language Association entitled “Is Higher Education Learning from the Pandemic?” along with Cathy N. Davidson and Christopher Newfield. 

Book: Nelson’s contributions to scholarship on health equity and racial justice date to at least 2011, when she published her first book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press), which argues, “The Black Panther Party’s understanding of health as a basic human right and its engagement with the social implications of genetics anticipated current debates about the politics of health and race.”  

Eric Klinenberg

In fall 2018, Eric Klinenberg was the featured speaker for a Difficult Dialogues Public Forum on “Climate Change, Social Infrastructure, and Inequality,” hosted by the Humanities Institute and Planet Texas 2050. Klinenberg is Helen Gould Shepard Professor of Social Science and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. Klinenberg’s work explores the failures of social infrastructure in moments of crisis, especially for historically neglected populations.

Video: “The Chicago Heat Wave, 20 Years Later” is a talk given by Klinenberg at the 2015 Chicago Humanities Festival that picks up the ideas presented in his 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (University of Chicago Press). In this book, the publisher writes, “Klinenberg uncovers how a number of surprising and unsettling forms of social breakdown—including the literal and social isolation of seniors, the institutional abandonment of poor neighborhoods, and the retrenchment of public assistance programs—contributed to the high fatality rates” of the record-breaking 1995 Chicago heat wave. 

Book: In Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (Penguin Random House, 2018), Klinenberg argues that “the future of democratic societies rests not simply on shared values but on shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centers, churches, and parks where crucial connections are formed.”

Article: “Worry Less about Crumbling Roads, More about Crumbling Libraries,” a September 2018 Atlantic article, presents Klinenberg’s basic thesis for Palaces of the People

Martha Redbone 

The Humanities Institute, in partnership with Native American and Indigenous Studies and Texas Performing Arts, was honored to host Martha Redbone for a fall 2019 Difficult Dialogues Public Forum entitled “Indigeneity, the Land, and Storytelling” along with Angelo Baca and Anne Lewis. Redbone is a Native and African American multi-award-winning musician and storyteller celebrated for her roots music embodying the folk, indigenous, and mountain blues sounds of her childhood in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky. 

Theater: This clip presents “Caught My Eye,” a song from Bone Hill, Redbone’s interdisciplinary theater work, which premiered in 2015 at Joe’s Pub in New York City (Redbone also presented Bone Hill: The Concert at Bass Concert Hall in February 2020.) Redbone explains, “Bone Hill is the true account of my ancestors, of post-slavery, and people of color working in the coal mines of Appalachia amid the laws of Jim Crow and our survival as the original people of that land as the world changes around us through the generations.” 

Album: Redbone’s most recent album is Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake. Of the album, Anastasia Tsioulcas of NPR writes, “Martha Redbone’s music chronicles the crossroads of the American experience. Born in Kentucky and of Cherokee, Choctaw and African American descent, Redbone combines folk, Appalachian, soul and Native tradition in a group of settings of poetry by William Blake – a startling idea, perhaps, but one that brims with potency and freshness.” 

“On Another’s Sorrow” is a song from the album that resonates particularly deeply at the current moment, asking: “Can I see another’s war and not be in sorrow too?”

“How Sweet I Roamed” is another song from the album that, Redbone writes, could have been the prelude to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” 

Other Songs: Redbone performs her version of “Drums,” originally written by Peter La Farge, at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The song is a testament to the violence of forced removal and state “education” and is a part of the permanent collection at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. “You may teach us of this country’s history,” the song goes, “but we taught it to you first.” 

Redbone performs the slave spiritual “No More Auction Block” in 2017 in the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Howard Gilman Opera House in association with Voices of a People’s History of the United States.  

Ross Gay’s “Sorrow Is Not My Name”

Sorrow Is Not My Name
by Ross Gay

—after Gwendolyn Brooks

No matter the pull toward brink. No

matter the florid, deep sleep awaits.

There is a time for everything. Look,

just this morning a vulture

nodded his red, grizzled head at me,

and I looked at him, admiring

the sickle of his beak.

Then the wind kicked up, and,

after arranging that good suit of feathers

he up and took off.

Just like that. And to boot,

there are, on this planet alone, something like two

million naturally occurring sweet things,

some with names so generous as to kick

the steel from my knees: agave, persimmon,

stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks

at the market. Think of that. The long night,

the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me

on the bus taking notes, yeah, yeah.

But look; my niece is running through a field

calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel

and at the end of my block is a basketball court.

I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.

for Walter Aikens


Ross Gay, “Sorrow Is Not My Name,” from Bringing the Shovel Down. 2011.

Traci Brimhall’s “Shelter in Place”

Recommended: Listen to Traci Brimhall read “Shelter in Place”

Shelter in Place
by Traci Brimhall

I didn’t know I loved Kansas, with its wind skirling
through the arms of windmills, its fields gravid
with lavender, its subscriptions for sunflowers.

I thought I was pollen complaint and water hunger.
I didn’t know I loved the hopeful ugliness of cygnets,

or that a group of vultures is called a wake, or that
a skull oxbows with a signature unique as a fingerprint.
I thought I loved to verb through the days, but spring

annulled that marriage, giving me to stillness. I didn’t
know I would also love the discourse of chickadees

in the redbud and insects at rest on my books, their legs
testing the strength of n’s and o’s before flitting off.
I didn’t know I would also love the sundial’s secretarial

shadow. I’d forgotten I loved the blue of afternoon—
bold, bare, the white of ecstasy at its edges, the lyric

bending me over its knees. I’d forgotten how to recite
the rosary long distance, but I knew I loved Latin
in the shower. I didn’t know I loved using my breath

to make a page of the mirror and draw vines of vanishing
roses with my ring finger, its vena amoris plumbing

commitment from hand to heart. I didn’t know I loved
wasps when I set the nest on fire. I only meant to protect
my son from his rushed in and out through the door,

but I watched them pull pearled eggs from muddy tunnels,
and I knew. I didn’t know I loved raccoons raiding day-old

cheeseburgers dressed with coleslaw and hot sauce from
plastic trash cans. What ingenious survival, what midnight.
I knew couplets loved dangling from trees. I knew rosemary

loved garnishing gin. I once loved brass bands and free
boat rides, but now I love hammers for hanging pictures

and telescopes for imagining a future with mix tapes of denim
and rhinestone rodeos, my face unmasked, my arm brushing
a stranger’s. Even now I love the stout pulses of magicians

and the salads my son makes from the wild in our yard—
the bitter dandelion greens, chickweed, henbit. I’d forgotten

I’m good at survival, too, that I’ve taught my son the uses
of the earth. Each day we walk one block further, our own
sympathetic magic, a ritual to ask the world to let us return.

I know I will love tomorrow’s moon as it coats its smell
on mint. I’ll love the driptorch bathing last year’s grasses in fire.

I know hope is a discipline but so is the dark heat falling
toward me, a citation of grief, a joy ready to welcome a late
continue, to fly open the door for my son, already running.

Traci Brimhall, “Shelter in Place.” May 15, 2020. Posted as part a new poetry series on Terrain.Org’s called Letter to America. Suggested to the Humanities Institute by Lisa Olstein.

Two Poems by Emily Dickinson

Hope is a strange invention (1877)
by Emily Dickinson

Hope is a strange invention —
A Patent of the Heart —
In unremitting action
Yet never wearing out —

Of this electric Adjunct
Not anything is known
But its unique momentum
Embellish all we own —

A replica of Emily Dickinson’s small writing table from her second-floor bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Alone, I cannot be (1861)
by Emily Dickinson

Alone, I cannot be —
For Hosts — do visit me —
Recordless Company —
Who baffle Key —

They have no Robes, nor Names —
No Almanacs — nor Climes —
But general Homes
Like Gnomes —

Their Coming, may be known
By Couriers within —
Their going — is not —
For they’ve never gone —

Emily Dickinson, “Hope is a strange invention” and “Alone, I cannot be.”

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