Public Humanities: Crisis and Possibility

On landing in Chicago, the site of the 2014 MLA convention, I turned on my cell phone to find a number of texts and voice mails informing me of Amiri Baraka’s death. In the days that followed, my prepared remarks for the Presidential Forum on public humanities began to seem inadequate. Thoughts of Baraka, thoughts of the black arts movement, which he helped shape and lead, crept into my thinking and rethinking about the subject of our panel. They did not change what I wanted to say but helped me realize how deeply my understanding of and commitment to what I only recently have come to think of as public humanities has its roots in an environment created by the likes of Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and others.

The Philadelphia of my childhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s was strongly influenced by the vibrancy and urgency of the black arts movement. The gatherings, meetings, readings, plays, discussions, and lectures were not only places where I heard poetry and music but also places of analysis, argument, information, where you learned to think critically, to understand, to debate. In these spaces of intellectual activity and intensity, speakers and audience members alike were invested, and the stakes seemed high because they involved the future not only of our people but also of the planet. Here was one practice of public humanities in a community for whom all times are vulnerable, a site that recognized the historic roots of that vulnerability but also called attention to people’s resilience, beauty, and ability to resist. Public humanities in this context was actually about movement building, about informing a people, encouraging them to see themselves as part of a tradition, and feeding and nourishing their intellects and their spirits so that they might be moved to act.

The events of the black arts movement always occurred in spaces that could be considered public because we had few private ones: parks, community centers, churches, public school auditoriums, bookstores, museums, occasionally buildings on the campuses of Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania. It is therefore not surprising that under neoliberalism these public structures and the activities they house would find themselves threatened.

What I later came to understand as public humanities includes the more formal programs produced by not-for-profit entities that encourage conversation, dialogue, and reflection about ideas. The even more formal, degree-granting entities at schools such as Portland State, Michigan State, Brown, and Yale institutionalize this kind of work and build bridges between the academy and the broader world. Academic units in black studies, ethnic studies, women’s studies, and gender studies have always privileged this kind of programming and collaboration. At Columbia, my work with the Center for Jazz Studies, the Institute for Research in African American Studies, and the Center for the Study of Social Difference resulted in projects and programming that all have a public humanities component.

Belonging to the Center for Jazz Studies, the Jazz Study Group is made up of literary critics, social historians, art historians, musicologists, archivists, film scholars, anthropologists, sociologists, journalists, poets, visual artists, composers, and improvisers. It has facilitated collaborative projects that are shared with the public as performances, exhibitions, conversations and talks among individual scholars; between scholars and journalists; and among visual artists, composers, and musicians. Slowly the work of this group is finding its way into popular jazz journalism, influencing the way critics frame stories and reviews. Many of the collaborations forged in the group result in public programming at Columbia but also at venues like the Harlem Stage and the Apollo. We helped develop a program featuring the virtuoso violinist Billy Bang and his Aftermath Band, the poet Yusef Komenyakaa, and my colleague Brent Edwards. At Harlem Stage, Bang and the Aftermath Band performed compositions based on Bang’s experience as a combat soldier in Vietnam; Komenyakaa read poetry that addressed his experiences in the Vietnam War; and Edwards moderated a postperformance conversation between them.

Another such program occurred at the Apollo in the spring of 2013. I worked with Geri Allen, a composer, arranger, and bandleader, and our director, S. Epatha Merkenson, to write a program that would both entertain and educate the audience about the history of women jazz artists who performed on the Apollo stage. We wanted to place these women in the context of a broader social and cultural history. The Apollo audience members were very appreciative but, as one might expect, had a few things to teach us as well. “Why did you select Sarah Vaughan’s version of that song? Gloria Lynne sang it here at the Apollo. That’s Gloria Lynne’s song,” a group of elderly women chastised. They were right. Public humanities, when done right, is always about a back-and-forth, a give-and-take, an openness and willingness to be vulnerable about the work you put in the world.

These were performance-based programs, but others, such as the project Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Social Difference, concluded with a conference and series of workshops for public school teachers. There are also plans to incorporate work with women in prison into our structure.

Most often, my involvement in public humanities programming involves giving lectures or appearing on panels that accompany exhibitions or performances. I am often asked to provide a critical or historical context or to share some part of my work in a way that is accessible to a general audience. These appearances provide me another space to do what I do best, teach. To engage a gathered group of curious individuals, to share what I’ve learned about a subject and hopefully share my passion for it; to invite people to participate in the journey of discovery and the exercise of critical thinking; and to listen to and learn from them. I can think of no greater work for a humanities scholar. It is our responsibility as citizens of a democracy in progress to engage in this kind of public forum: to educate and be educated by our fellow citizens. We must be actively engaged in the struggle to maintain that forum.

Much of the current talk about both the public and the humanities speaks in terms of crisis and assault, and rightly so. It is not surprising that vulnerable times would produce a sense of crisis. Public humanities helps produce an informed, critically thinking populace, which is a necessary condition for the practice of democracy. It also helps produce scholars (and scholarship) that address, engage, and are engaged by a broader public, by people. The assault on the public is an assault on democracy. Those who want to maintain conditions of ignorance and inequality strive for a world where the arts are something we collect and consume for purposes of status and mobility, not something we learn how to read in ways that inform our concepts of the past, present, and future and give us the ability to change the world we live in. That is why it is our job to insist on the importance and the necessity of both the public and the humanities and the work that brings them together.

These are troubling times indeed, but I remain hopeful and committed. I end where I began, with Baraka. In a 1990 interview, he said that while he remained angry and fired up, “I’d say I’m a revolutionary optimist. . . . I believe that the good guys—the people—are going to win” (“Amiri Baraka”).

Work Cited

“Amiri Baraka, 1934–2014.” PEN America. PEN Amer. Center, 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 8 Oct. 2014.

Farah Jasmine Griffin is William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago.


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