The audience was sparse for immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas. As it scattered into the seats of the Ohio Theatre in downtown Cleveland, some of the regulars for the Town Hall lecture series murmured about the empty rows.

Near the front of the ornate auditorium, a retired couple from Mentor, Ohio, scanned the program. “Hope the immigration service doesn’t show up and nab him,” the man said.

“Yeah,” his wife replied.

“Is an undocumented immigrant the same as an illegal alien?” he asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said, “it sounds that way.”

This preamble made an unnervingly apt set-up for an evening with Vargas, a frank, funny Philippines-born journalist who calls himself “a walking uncomfortable conversation.” Vargas generated headlines in 2011 when he wrote a New York Times Magazine piece called “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.”

Since then, Vargas has become the face of undocumented people in the United States — some 12 million, roughly the population of Ohio. Or, as he reminded his Cleveland audience, the same number as arrived via Ellis Island – without papers – between 1892 and 1954.

Vargas played a tape of a roofer cursing him in a Birmingham, Ala., bar. “I get a lot of hate mail,” he said matter-of-factly.  “I average about 20 a day.”  As some of his audience squirmed, Vargas projected a photo of and read aloud a profanity-laced, capitalized e-mail to him titled, “Get Out of My Country.”  He blacked out his correspondent’s name, but said he found her on Facebook and requested her as a friend. She didn’t respond.

At 32, Vargas is high cheek-boned, with spiky black hair and a quick smile.  He said he is frequently asked: “You’re not Mexican?” He is short.  “I look like Yao Ming with some Jeremy Lin mixed in,” he joked.

“This man is a rock star,” Cleveland immigration lawyer Margaret Wong said. “He has really ignited a whole discussion.  Immigration is not just about Mexico and borders.”

Indeed, Vargas sees the predicament of undocumented people as a new chapter in civil rights, and calls those citizens who aid them a “21st-century underground railroad.”  When he testified before the U.S. Senate in early February, his former high school principal and the venture capitalist who paid his college tuition sat behind him, flanked by an aunt and grandmother.

In a  2012 Time magazine cover story, he describes himself as “a witness to a shift I believe will be a game changer in this debate: more people coming out. While closely associated with the modern gay-rights movement, in recent years the term coming out and the act itself have been embraced by the country’s young undocumented population. At least 2,000 undocumented immigrants – most of them under 30 – have contacted me and outed themselves in the last year.”

To help curate the conversation, Vargas started a nonprofit called Define American.  In the next few weeks, the group plans a video-driven campaign to erase “illegal alien” from acceptable discourse. On its website, and on his rounds across the nation, Vargas tells his story:

As a 12-year-old, Jose arrived in Mountain View, Calif.  His grandfather, a security guard and his grandmother, a food server, saved the $4,000 to fly him from the Philippines. Four years later, when he applied for a driver’s license, he discovered his green card was fake.  Among his 25 stateside relatives, only Jose was without papers.  He said he is among the 17 million Americans living in mixed-status families.  And, he said, these families are sundered when some 1,000 people are deported daily.

His Filipino family, he said, assumed he would resolve his status by marrying.  That became infinitely more complex when Vargas turned 18, and came out as gay.

After his New York Times magazine revelation, Vargas mustered his courage to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement inquiring about why he hadn’t been picked up. He got a “no comment.”  He speculated, “There are 5 million Filipinos in America; a lot of nurses would get mad if I were deported.  I’ve probably become too risky, too visible, to deport.”

And still, in spots like Alabama and Arizona, the law is exceptionally harsh. “Alabama has out-Arizona-ed Arizona with HB 56,” he said. “It would be a felony for Margaret [Wong] to drive me, an ‘illegal alien’, in Alabama.”

Decisions to breaking the law to acquire a driver’s license, and to doctor his social security card, were among the most difficult of his life, Vargas said.  He is frequently asked why he thinks he is above the law.  He asked his listeners to consider his context, to ponder what they might do. He said he drew comfort from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which draws on the notion that an unjust law is no law at all.

That same year, a racist bombed Birmingham’s 16th St. Baptist Church and four small girls were killed.  A half century later, Vargas spoke there. His audience, he said, was elderly,  veterans of the civil right struggle:  “I was looking at these mostly older women, and thinking about what they had gone through to be considered citizens of their own country. And one said, ‘We’re all in this fight with you.’ ”

He looked at his Cleveland audience: “What side of history are you going to be on? “

In what we hope will become an ongoing series, we’ll be sitting down with Anisfield-Wolf winners to hear their thoughts on winning the Anisfield-Wolf award. What has it meant to their careers, to their personal lives, to their approach to their craft? 

In our first installment, we spoke to Kwame Anthony Appiah after his recent talk with Johnnetta Cole at Oberlin College. He was, as we predicted, gracious and forthcoming. We look forward to share more interviews with you over the coming months! 

For the first time in history, two inaugural poets shared the same stage and spoke about what the experience meant for their lives. Earlier this month, 2009 Inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander (also an Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement winner in 2010) and 2013 Inaugural poet Richard Blanco spoke at Yale University, with Blanco making his first public appearance since inauguration.

“I felt a little less exposed with 800,000 people than I do right now,” Blanco joked in front of the small Yale audience. The two spoke about feedback after delivering the poem, Blanco’s writing style, and what role poetry can play in the political realm. The conversation between Alexander and Blanco begins at the 29:30 mark.

Did you enjoy Richard Blanco’s poem “One Today“? The Library of Congress gives a great breakdown of each stanza and the literary influences within. 

Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Beloved, took home the Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction in 1988. In it, a slave, unwilling to see her children grow up and live the same fate as their mother, killed one of her children rather than see them in bondage. Eighteen years later, the mother is visited by a young woman who she believes is the slain infant, returned. 

However lauded the work may be, not everyone is a fan. Most recently, a Fairfax County parent has petitioned to ban the book based on the book’s content, which she says gave her son nightmares after he read it for his senior-level English class. “I’m not some crazy book burner,” Laura Murphy said. “I have great respect and admiration for our Fairfax County educators. The school system is second to none. But I disagree with the administration at a policy level.”

Of course, Ms. Murphy’s request is nothing new for the novel. According to the American Library Association, Beloved ranks 26th out of the most frequently banned books of the past 10 years. Its content (particularly the infanticide) has certainly disturbed many readers, but it is still lauded for its examination of the African American experience throughout the course of history—both good and bad. 

In a 1987 interview with the New York Times, Toni Morrison talked about her inspiration for the book: 

”I was amazed by this story I came across about a woman called Margaret Garner who had escaped from Kentucky, I think, into Cincinnati with four children. And she was a kind of cause celebre among abolitionists in 1855 or ’56 because she tried to kill the children when she was caught. She killed one of them, just as in the novel. I found an article in a magazine of the period, and there was this young woman in her 20’s, being interviewed – oh, a lot of people interviewed her, mostly preachers and journalists, and she was very calm, she was very serene. They kept remarking on the fact that she was not frothing at the mouth, she was not a madwoman, and she kept saying, ‘No, they’re not going to live like that. They will not live the way I have lived.'” 

Morrison argued that her novel was not about slavery but a broader look at passion, self-sabotage, and the will of a people told they are less than human. 

While Ms. Murphy may not succeed, her concerns about what is appropriate for children and young adults are very valid. Have you ever read a book you felt you were too young for, or have your children come home with a book you felt was above their maturity level? 


In honor of Ms. Morrison’s 82nd birthday, we’re looking back at our archives for some of our favorite moments from the esteemed author over the past few years. Take a walk down memory lane with us:

“Beloved” is named one of the “88 Books That Shaped America” by the Library of Congress:

Toni Morrison won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her post-Civil War novel based on the true story of an escaped slave and the tragic consequences when a posse comes to reclaim her. The author won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, and in 2006 The New York Times named “Beloved” “the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years.”

She wins the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom:

In his personal remarks during the ceremony, President Obama said of Morrison’s work, “I remember reading Song of Solomon when I was a kid. Not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be. And how to think.”

“Home,” her 10th novel, hits newsstands in 2012:

The Washington Post wrote that in her latest novel, Morrison “has never been more concise, and that restraint demonstrates the full use of her power.” Read more reviews here.

Her legacy moves closer to home

Last year, the Toni Morrison Society, a group of scholars, moved its headquarters from Atlanta to Oberlin, Ohio. Morrison grew up in nearby Lorain, where she still has family. Founded in 1993, the society supports the teaching, reading, and critical examination of Toni Morrison’s works.

In 2011, in the midst of a distinguished career as a journalistJose Antonio Vargas revealed that he was living in the United States as an undocumented resident. It was a secret he felt he could keep no longer and against the advice of several immigration lawyers, he wrote a moving essay in The New York Times magazine on his life without permanent U.S. citizenship:

It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.

In the past year, he has continued to advocate for the rights of other undocumented residents, many of whom were brought to the United States as children. He is the founder of Define American, which brings the stories of immigrants to the forefront and adds their experiences to the conversation on immigration reform.

Recently, he testified in a Senate Judiciary Committee on immigration.

Where do you fall in the immigration debate? Share your comments with us below. If you’re in Northeast Ohio (or know someone who is), you’ll get a chance to see Vargas at the Town Hall speaker series on February 25. Get more information on tickets here

As the U.S. economy continues to crawl toward recovery, more and more people find themselves at the library. Filled with resources, computers, books and programs, the local library is often one of the only places people can go to get their information needs met, and unlike most online sources, there are real live people there to offer assistance.

Writers tend to be very vocal champions for libraries, particularly these days as funding is cut while demand is highest. Earlier this year, during an author visit to his local library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Junot Diaz spoke for a few minutes on the importance of libraries, particularly as it relates to his success as an author. “I can directly attribute who I am as a writer, an artist, as a thinker..from my early, early experiences in my school and town library.” Watch his entire remarks below.

Most children learn about Rosa Parks’ contribution to the Civil Rights Movement thusly: She boarded a bus, refused to move to the back of the bus when a white passenger got on board, and was promptly arrested, kicking off the Montgomery bus boycott. Lasting roughly 13 months, the Montgomery bus boycott lead to an official Supreme Court ruling declaring segregation on public transportation unconstitutional.

While that did indeed happen, what is often overlooked is Rosa Parks’ earlier involvement with the civil rights movement. She was a member of the Montgomery NAACP chapter and even served as secretary for NAACP President E.D. Nixon. In honor of what would have been her 100th birthday this year, the Huffington Post recently highlighted some lesser known facts about Rosa Parks, including the fact that she had been thrown off the bus 10 years earlier by the same driver:

She had avoided that driver’s bus for twelve years because she knew well the risks of angering drivers, all of whom were white and carried guns. Her own mother had been threatened with physical violence by a bus driver, in front of Parks who was a child at the time. Parks’ neighbor had been killed for his bus stand, and teenage protester Claudette Colvin, among others, had recently been badly manhandled by the police.

Read the rest of the facts at the link and let us know – did you know any of this about Rosa Parks? 

After a rich discussion between philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and museum director Johnnetta Cole, the final question in Oberlin’s Finney Chapel was a zinger.

Appiah, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1993 for his influential collection of essays “In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture,” had been turning over questions of identity and art with Cole, an anthropologist who leads the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. The duo’s last question came from Kelsey Scult, 20, an Oberlin African Studies major, who just completed a January internship at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle.

Looking at Cole, the white student  asked, “If I was up for a job at your museum against someone of African descent, I would think they should probably get the job.”

Without hesitation, Cole told Scult she had asked “an absolutely wonderful question.  When you go for the job, I would urge you to identify with all of humanity.  And all of humanity came from only one place—the African continent.”

Cole, 76, who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, said her mother understood something about common humanity. “My mother didn’t have positive experiences with white folk, but whenever she did, she’d say, ‘You know so-and-so, that white man, he must have a touch of color.’ I live for the day when we dwell more on our connectedness than our differences.  If you’ve done your work, and you know how to move with respect, then it should be your job.”

Appiah, 58, president of Pen America and a Princeton University professor, agreed. He reminded Scult that the W.E.B. Du Bois sought out white experts in compiling his Encyclopedia Africana, and that museum staffs are not segregated. “Identity is not the main thing that matters in scholarship, although identity does matter,” he said, noting that a cadre of white men weighing the intellectual rigor of women might be suspect.

The February 7 evening in Finney Chapel began with Appiah’s slide show of exteriors of renowned museums.  He noted that these institutions were forming during  the 19th Century’s infatuation with Romanticism, a reaction to the Enlightenment that yoked artistic expression to nationalism.  Appiah argued that contemporary peoples aren’t shed of this link, using an example from the Guggenheim Museum that grouped El Greco and Picasso as exemplars of Spanish art, even when the biographical facts confound such claims.

“One of the great philosophical misunderstandings about art is that it is an expression of a nation, a culture, and not the work of an individual,” Appiah said. This is just as true for literature, which borrows liberally from other wells, as William Shakespeare did from Italian sources, he said.

Cole, who had left the stage for Appiah’s opening remarks, returned to ask him, “If museums did not exist, would it be necessary to invent them?”

Appiah looked slightly startled. “That’s a great question,” he murmured. “The things that museums do, we’d have to do—care for precious objects that come from the past, help interpret them, introduce young people to this great human heritage and research those objects about which we don’t know enough.”  He said the key meaning of the arts lies in the act of preserving and passing on the masterpieces worth responding to.

For identities to matter, Appiah said, they must be taken up, interpreted and mediated by outside reactions. He said if he began wearing a dress around the Princeton campus, there might be mild surprise, but little more.  A student came to the microphone and challenged him, saying in academics, gender bending would frequently provoke hostility.

Cole, who graduated from Oberlin in 1957, said she was smitten by the student’s moxie. Several times, she circled back to quote an Appiah truism: “Things are always more complicated than they seem, and some complexities we don’t like to confront.”  When the same student asked how First World museums, which own stolen objects, justify exhibits that amount to “celebrations of colonialism, exploitation and displacement,” Appiah said the crux was not ownership, but access.

“Not everything that started out in a colonial place was stolen,” he said. “What’s really important is if you live in Mali, you don’t have much of a shot at the cultural artifacts that a person in London or New York or Berlin has a chance to see.”  Appiah said he was cheered by some of the lending now from the British Museum to institutions in Kenya and China, whose curators are keen to exhibit not just indigenous objects, but want examples of English and European art to share.

In international exchanges, Appiah noted wryly, “Every threat can be re-described as an offer.”

We’re always delighted to read a new piece from 2006 winner Zadie Smith’s mind, as she is one of our favorite authors in the modern age. It’s kind of blasphemous for us to declare we have a favorite (after all, isn’t it like saying, out loud, that you have a favorite child?) but it’s true that Zadie Smith is at the top of our list. (Don’t worry, our list is very wide at the top.) 

Her newest piece is an easy read in the New Yorker, called “The Embassy of Cambodia.” Here’s a sneak peek:

Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!

Next door to the embassy is a health center. On the other side, a row of private residences, most of them belonging to wealthy Arabs (or so we, the people of Willesden, contend). They have Corinthian pillars on either side of their front doors, and—it’s widely believed—swimming pools out back. The embassy, by contrast, is not very grand. It is only a four- or five-bedroom North London suburban villa, built at some point in the thirties, surrounded by a red brick wall, about eight feet high. And back and forth, cresting this wall horizontally, flies a shuttlecock. They are playing badminton in the Embassy of Cambodia. Pock, smash. Pock, smash.

The only real sign that the embassy is an embassy at all is the little brass plaque on the door (which reads, “the embassy of cambodia”) and the national flag of Cambodia (we assume that’s what it is—what else could it be?) flying from the red tiled roof. Some say, “Oh, but it has a high wall around it, and this is what signifies that it is not a private residence, like the other houses on the street but, rather, an embassy.” The people who say so are foolish. Many of the private houses have high walls, quite as high as the Embassy of Cambodia’s—but they are not embassies.

Want to finish the story? Keep reading here. To accompany the short story the New Yorker also did a quick Q&A with Mrs. Smith – here’s one snippet on her writing process: 

When I’m writing everything is basically spontaneous. I don’t keep a journal or make notes or plan. I have a vague idea one day, sometimes a tone, or a single image—like the embassy—and even if I don’t really know why it’s stuck with me, it’s interesting (to me) that it has stuck. And then if the idea or image hangs around for long enough—weeks, or months—I sit down and try to write it out and see what it’s about.




Jack Johnson, arguably one of the best heavyweight boxers to ever enter the sport, is about to have his story told on the small screen for the second time. The same man—Ken Burns—will be at the helm of both films. Tom Hanks’ Playtone Productions production company will be joining Burns for the effort.

Burns’ first film, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, was based on Geoffrey C. Ward’s book of the same name. (It also won the Anisfield-Wolf award in 2005.) In it, they profiled Johnson’s undeniable talent amidst the background of a society permeated by racism. Not many details are known yet about this new project, but it will be based on Ward’s book as well, and broken up into a four- or six-part miniseries on HBO.

What would you like for the filmmakers to focus on in this new effort?

Jim Sheeler has no use for celebrity. He is drawn to “regular people, whose names have never been in the paper.”

So when the quiet journalist left Colorado in 2010 and took a job in Cleveland, he went looking for a font of stories he might connect to students of his new employer, Case Western Reserve University. Toggling around the web, Sheeler happened upon the Eliza Bryant Village, the nation’s oldest continually operating African-American nursing home. It had grown since 1897 to be the largest employer in nearby Hough.

“In nursing homes you have people with great stories, time to tell them and stories that would otherwise be lost,” Sheeler told a packed room in Clark Hall Thursday afternoon, assembled to get a taste of wine and cheese and what the students had discovered.

Sheeler, 43, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his newspaper coverage of Colorado families of soldiers killed in Iraq. He gives off a restless, earnest energy — some of the cemetery workers in Colorado nicknamed him Harry Potter, a nod to his dark, oval glasses and boyish manner. He subscribes to the Joan Didion school of fading-into-the-background reporting.

He began his presentation with Eliza Bryant resident Andrew Bailey, who quickly deflated the interloper’s nifty idea. “The old man told me he didn’t want us to know his story and my heart sank,” Sheeler said. “He was very skeptical about these kids from Case Western and this professor who had come from Colorado and hadn’t known where Hough was until six weeks ago. I realized he was right. We hadn’t earned it.”

So Sheeler and his students slowed down and got acquainted with Bailey. Eventually, he granted them permission to tell the story of Mrs. Bailey, who lived in the dementia unit some 220 steps from her husband’s Eliza Bryant apartment. Wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt and a handsome mustache, Bailey, 77, eventually invited the students to his apartment, and to film his much-trod route to see his wife. Bailey told his visitors that “she changed my life completely,” and taught him compassion. He showed the students his old fishing license, on which he had written the date he took his last drink.

“This was not just a love story,” Sheeler said of the deepening narrative, “this was a story about compassion — the compassion Mrs. Bailey taught him, and the compassion he showed her in the end.”

When the professor delivered an unexpected twist to the couple’s final days, many in the audience were fighting tears. The mood lightened with the next segment, a piece on “The Misfits,” the bowling team at Eliza Bryant that assembles for rousing games of Wii competition. “I tries to keep these bowlers in line,” team captain Delores Bowden said. “We talk a whole lot of trash in there . . . tease and play.”

Eliza Bryant Village opened as the Cleveland Home for Aged Colored People, the first nonreligious institution sponsored by African Americans in the city, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Eliza Bryant herself was born into slavery in North Carolina, but became a free resident of Cleveland. She was alarmed by the suffering of the elderly, many of whom were freed slaves turned away from the segregated institutions of the day. Bryant campaigned for years to raise money for the first home, which began with no gas, furnace or bath at 284 Giddings St. John D. Rockefeller gave some of the initial start-up cash.

“It’s really been remarkable how they’ve grown and changed,” said Robert E. Eckardt, executive vice president of the Cleveland Foundation. “We’ve been involved for a long time. Our $750,000 grant in 1981 was critical to Eliza Bryant to move from a relatively small, old-fashioned facility into a new era.”

Eckardt said the foundation and other partners understood that enhancing a high-quality facility in the inner city was vital to Cleveland, its residents and families, and all those who use the multi-purpose senior center. Sheeler said that importance is made concrete through the residents’ stories, as he explained in the Baker-Nord sponsored session January 31.

Students, who are encouraged to record their own reactions as part of a sophisticated narrative format, can learn about Medicaid and end-of-life questions. But they also have a window on wisdom. “How do we learn to take care the way Mr. Bailey did, and the way Mrs. Bailey taught him?,” Sheeler asked.

“As one gets older, it’s easy to feel invisible,” one woman in the audience responded. “You are giving visibility to people who don’t have it.”

Watch one of the videos at the link.


The Bowling Team from james sheeler on Vimeo.