The Faculty Fellows seminar on September 26th was led by Julia Mickenberg, Professor in the Department of American Studies. Building from her previous work on leftist and radical politics in children’s books, Dr. Mickenberg presented a collection of materials that represents her work-in-progress: a book on American writer Eve Merriam. Merriam published a wide range of work from the late 1950s into the late ‘70s, including plays, poems, essays, children’s books, and more, with surprising speed.
Indeed, the breadth of interests, topics, and expressive forms found in Merriam’s work is part of what makes her so fascinating to Mickenberg. Across her career Merriam participated in a number of different literary and political circles, tying together a number of Mickenberg’s own interests, for instance in radical cultures, feminism, children’s literature, and the children’s liberation movement. (These interests are explored in Mickenberg’s books, Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (2005) and American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream (2017).) According to Mickenberg, Merriam is likely best remembered as a children’s poet, but her influence was felt through a variety of contexts, and a variety of genres. Her legacy was further complicated by the 1973 Barbra Streisand film, The Way We Were. Merriam partially inspired screenwriter Arthur Laurents’ take on the Streisand character, Kate Morosky, providing Mickenberg an unexpected inroad to writing about Merriam herself.
Participants in the seminar were amazed at the amount of ground Merriam covered over the course of her life, creating unexpected communities through her work and presaging the feminist work of Betty Friedan in her political essays from the late ‘50s. Many suggested that readers might similarly want to engage with the fascinating diversity of Merriam’s work, and advised Mickenberg to consider collecting some of Merriam’s writing into a separate edited volume. As Mickenberg noted, Merriam’s “The Diary of a White Liberal Racist” seems remarkably relevant to discussions today about some of the subtler forms that persistent racism takes, including institutional racism, implicit biases, and the benefits that even liberal or progressive white people often enjoy at the benefit of people of color.
Mickenberg’s own project is still taking shape and she is exploring different approaches to telling a life story, including the question of to what extent she wants to focus on narrating and analyzing Merriam’s own life and work and to what extent she wants to use Merriam as a lens for discussing some of the broader historical and cultural developments in which she participated. An enticing facet of Merriam’s story is how many major figures in diverse fields across a long stretch of time she had dealings with, ranging from W.E.B. DuBois to Norman Lear!
Seminar participants, including several who had written biographies or, in the case of Paul Stekler, made biographical films, brainstormed with Mickenberg about approaches she might take to organizing her materials and deciding upon a through-line for the story she wants to tell. Participants suggested focusing individual chapters on different genres Merriam had written in or on particularly resonant creative experiences she’d had. One participant suggested that a chapter might be devoted to the community created around The Club, her Obie award-winning play, which debuted in 1976. Mickenberg has interviewed the play’s producer Mary Silverman, and through the interview, she discovered how tightly knit the cast became during the play’s premiere at the Lenox Theater in the Berkshires. The actors bonded over a mutual connection with Merriam’s script, a satirical take on men’s clubs featuring an entirely female cast. Mickenberg closed the seminar by showing a series of clips from Merriam’s work in television, including a TV spot for the bicentennial anniversary of the American Revolution, and All That Glitters, a 1970s TV sitcom, directed by Norman Lear, parodying men and women’s roles by entirely reversing them. Seminar participants also discussed how writers include themselves in their scholarly work as narrators and as characters. Though including oneself in a biography or paper can be prove risky, participants agreed that Mickenberg’s reference to her research process added something valuable to her paper.
The September 12th Faculty Fellows seminar featured guest speaker and seminar leader Robin Lakoff, Professor Emerita in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a pioneering figure in the study of language and gender. Dr. Lakoff presented the Faculty Fellows group with a series of articles past and present, including a series of unpublished “snorts,” or short articles on a variety of different topics relating to linguistics, politics, and current events. Dr. Lakoff’s appearance at the Faculty Fellows seminar was one of three events she offered across campus during her visit to Austin. Lakoff participated in a moderated conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Keating, professor in the Department of Anthropology at UT-Austin, and later lectured on “Narrative Control and the Human Project” as part of the Humanities Institute’s Distinguished Visiting Lecture series on “Narrative and Social Justice.”
In the seminar, Lakoff expanded on many of the themes she discussed in her lecture, including a shift on the part of the media from political candidates’ personal stories to a focus on who is “controlling the narrative,” or the cultural conversation. Many in the seminar discussed the breakdown of communication in politics as a whole, examining the ways in which cultural narratives around American civility have shifted to narratives of control. Others pointed out the ways in which these narratives appear in the classroom, brainstorming methods of teaching students to identify bias and model analytic skills.
Responding to questions about how she came to her more recent interest in political rhetoric, Lakoff described both her current interest and her development as a scholar in linguistics. As she explained, she began her undergraduate studies at Harvard as a classicist, studying languages, philology–everything but classical literature itself, which she said was at that time typically left as the last step in a long path. Lakoff told the group how she had found herself becoming impatient with the pace of her program, and how she eventually began visiting Building 20 at MIT, the province, she said, of the “not-quite-academic” fields. There, she began to work with students in linguistics, who were in the active process of building the field from Noam Chomsky’s principles. They had thought, she reminisced, that they would eventually get a universal grammar through their work, but eventually linguists such as herself came to recognize the improbability of that task. Her own interests turned towards pragmatics, and her interest in gendered language began in that context.
Participants discussed the difference between Lakoff’s and Chomsky’s turn to politics (his pursued apart from linguistics, hers within it). Lakoff admitted that she did not consider herself a feminist scholar at the beginning of her career, but noted that a shift occurred when she began to delve more deeply into gendered semantics. She became fascinated by the way language represented intimacy and power dynamics through its more performative aspects.
The seminar participants discussed Lakoff’s assigned readings at length, including pieces discussed during Lakoff’s public talks. Participants pored over Lakoff’s article examining the concession and acceptance speeches of candidates during the 2000 presidential election. Some noted their surprise at speeches’ success, given the fraught state of affairs surrounding the Florida recount. Yet Lakoff asserted the importance of each speech act in reunifying the country, covering over the election’s drama with “business as usual.” Lakoff evoked again her concluding paragraph in the final minutes of the seminar, noting that the candidates headed off a constitutional crisis through a call to inaction–a prizing of social nicety over alarm, or action.
On Training Young Israeli and Palestinian Women to Be Peacemakers in their Communities
By Suzanne Seriff
Sometimes, various aspects of our lives intersect in unexpected and enriching ways. This was the case when I learned that the University of Texas at Austin’s Humanities Institute and Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, along with the Jewish and interfaith communities of Austin were hosting a week-long visit from four young women leaders—Palestinian and Jewish Israeli—who are part of a Santa Fe-based organization called Creativity for Peace. The events take place from Feb 12-16, 2017.
Creativity for Peace (CfP) is in its 18th year and “prepares young Israeli and Palestinian women to be peacemakers in their communities and across borders with compassion, friendship, and courage.” I am an active member of each of the Austin-based host communities, and I also have a collaborative relationship with Creativity for Peace in Santa Fe. Each has unique qualities but all share an openness to new experiences, and a desire for change toward social justice. Some exercise the mind; others the capacity for human connections. Dialogue is the active link that binds me to each of these organizations’ endeavors, and which catalyzes our conversations across borders.
I truly look forward to interacting with all of them on my home turf, a rare opportunity to bring so many resources to the task of promoting peace though dialogue, art, and action.
Established in 2010, the mission of the GoC at the Museum of International Folk Art is to serve as an agent of positive social change by engaging and connecting individuals and communities around social justice and human rights issues, using the power of folk arts to address historical and current events; to catalyze dialogue; and to promote personal reflection, communication, and action. Since 2012 the GoC has operated through a “prototyping” process, in which exhibitions evolve organically over time in response to visitor input and community engagement, ever a work in progress.
Dialogue is at the heart of the GoC’s mission and it was the spark that generated our multi-year collaboration with CfP and two award-winning folk artists. During two successive summer workshops, CfP’s Israeli and Palestinian campers came together with local New Mexican young women at the Gallery to work with master-level folk artists. They explored mutually relevant themes of home, belonging, place and displacement which were mirrored in the GoC exhibition, Between Two Worlds: Folk Artists Reflect on the Immigrant Experience, which was on display at the Museum of International Folk Art between spring of 2014 and spring of 2016. Both workshops were held in conjunction with CfP’s annual three-week summer camp intensive for Palestinian and Jewish Israeli girls, age 15-17.
The issues affecting immigrants, refugees or displaced persons can be difficult to directly confront, either because of stigma, taboo, language barriers, stereotypes, or conflict. The GoC and CfP collaboration gave participants not only the opportunity to engage directly with the words and works of master-level traditional artists who speak out through their arts, but also the chance to share their own stories and personal experiences evoked by the art; to enrich their understanding of different points of view surrounding questions of home and belonging for people who share contested spaces; and to identify how they can respond directly to needs they see in their communities.
By the time the exhibition officially opened in the summer of 2014, the Gallery was perfectly—if inadvertently—positioned to respond to what national headlines—and President Obama—were billing as an “urgent humanitarian situation” in the United States (Washington Post June 2, 2014) involving thousands of unaccompanied children arriving in this country seeking asylum. Several of the artworks uncannily mirrored the reporting on these very current events, even though the artworks had been created years—sometimes decades—before. Two of the most evocative artworks include a painting by Cuban artist Cenia Guttiérez Alfonso, depicting an unaccompanied young girl crossing the Atlantic Ocean on her journey to a new land (Menina con Gallo/ Young Girl with Rooster), and a three-part sculpture by Peruvian-American retablo maker Nicario Jiménez (provocatively titled Immigration: The American Dream) which illustrates the differential receptions of three groups of undocumented Latino families–Cubans, Haitians, and Mexicans–arriving on our nation’s shores and greeted, respectively, either by refugee assistance agencies, detention centers, or border police.
That summer also coincided with the outbreak of renewed conflict between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, rendering Between Two Worlds themes all the more compelling for CfP workshop participants. The works on display sparked dialogue about some of the exhibit’s core themes which resonated with all of the young women– the struggle to belong in a place where you may or may not feel welcome, and the experience of living between two worlds. These works included textiles, wood carvings, beadwork, paintings and poetry by Cuban, Mozambican, Hmong, Mexican, Hispanic New Mexican, Brazilian, Lakota, Polish, Navajo, Tibetan, Nigerian and Peruvian artists. Following this exercise, the young women were introduced to the exhibit’s featured immigrant artist—Nigerian Yoruba indigo dye artist Gasali Adeyemo; (Year One) and Mexican immigrant papel picado (cut paper) artist, Catalina Delgado Trunk (Year Two). These artists introduced the young women to the cultural background of their art and work.
For the remainder of the workshop, participants were encouraged to reflect on their experiences of home, belonging, and displacement, and to express their ideas through the artists’ medium. In the first year of the collaboration, the young women were encouraged to create a quilt block representing some artistic representation of “home” using the batik dying technique introduced by Gasali. These blocks were later sewn into a quilt for the Gallery, and represented some of the profound sentiments that were sparked by the exhibit’s themes. For example, a young Palestinian woman, far from home for the first time, depicted a house aglow with the lights of a traditional wedding. An Israeli portrayed the Jewish Friday-night Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner, when her family gathers for stories and prayer. In the second year of the collaboration, the participants created symbols of home, peace, or family using the cut paper technique of papel picado represented in Catalina’s award-winning work, which were bound into an illustrated book for the Gallery’s dialogue lounge. Both workshops resulted in original works of art, and stories from the CfP campers, that were subsequently featured in the exhibition itself.
Many of these campers have gone on to become young leaders of the Arab-Israeli peace process. They have undertaken intensive leadership training in their home regions on how to facilitate groups, organize projects, serve as spokeswomen and take other actions to help achieve peace. The result has been a steady stream of speaking engagements at conferences both at home and abroad, attending global summits, meeting with government leaders, and even, in some cases, returning to Santa Fe to serve as junior counselors at the CfP summer camp. Their trip to Austin is part of a national tour in which four of these young leaders, along with CfP executive Director Dottie Indyke, will meet and hold workshops with high school and college students throughout the United States to talk about the process that brought them together and answer questions from the audience.
As I prepare to welcome the young leaders of CfP to Austin next week, I realize that one of them, Deema Yusuf, was a participant in our initial workshop with Gasali Adeyemo when she was a first-time CfP camper during the summer of 2014. Writing about the quilt block she created at the time, Deema reflects on the importance of language as both a tie that binds and a spark for dialoguing across difference:
. . . I wanted to write something. Especially in Arabic because I feel like Arabic writing is like an art. And it’s very beautiful—even for people who don’t know how to read it . . . So I decided to write ‘Palestine’ in Arabic because that’s where I’m from and . . . it’s very important for me.
I look forward to welcoming her—and the other representatives from CfP in Santa Fe, and Israel and Palestine—to my Austin home! We live lives in so many time zones, so many dimensions these days that it is rare for things we love to come together. Their visit is a great opportunity for dialogue, engagement, and action.
The Humanities Institute is hosting its Spring 2017 Difficult Dialogues Public Forum with Creativity for Peace on Monday, February 13 at 7pm at the University of Texas at Austin. To learn more about this event, visit us here.
Dr. Suzanne Seriff is a folklorist and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, where she also received her Ph.D. Her research focuses on Mexican culture, immigrant arts, and public culture. She is Director of the Gallery of Conscience (GoC) at the Museum of International Folk Art in Sante Fe, NM.
Publicly identifying oneself as feminist isn’t always easy. Being openly feminist in the world of gaming—a world where misogyny, harassment, and objectification are the norm—is even harder. As a feminist filmmaker, I always thought I knew what it was like to work in a male-dominated and often casually sexist field. Even though I considered myself a no-nonsense feminist, I still thought I could roll with the punches and was cool enough to “hang with the guys.” But I couldn’t imagine the challenges that many women in gaming experience on a daily basis, and how their brand of feminism was often so different, so much deeper and stronger, than what I could even conceive. While I was worried about how to balance having a sense of humor with being taken seriously in the film industry, women in the parallel space of gaming were worried about threats to their personal safety.