Lisa Nielson is the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studes, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.
I was introduced to “Less than Human” last fall when I had the pleasure of hearing David Livingstone Smith speak at the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony and at Case Western Reserve University the next day. His presentation was riveting, and I felt myself vacillating between awe at the breadth of his work and shock at the horror of what humanity has done through dehumanization.
Judging from the taut silence as the awards audience of 800 heard Smith speak, they had a similar reaction. Listeners occasionally gasped as Smith told the story of Ota Benga, a Batwa (“pygmy”) tribesman, who was bought from a slave merchant in what was then called the Congo Free State and put on exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.
Eventually, Benga was put on display at the newly opened Bronx Zoo, sharing a cage with an orangutan. Black clergy protested, and, “buckling under the pressure of controversy, zoo authorities released Ota Benga from his cage, and allowed him to wander freely around the zoo, where jeering crowds pursued him,” Smith said.
The story ends with Benga succumbing to madness, and putting a bullet through his own heart.
In reflecting on this anecdote and the book, I was struck by Smith’s observation that for all that has been written about genocide, war, and dehumanization, little scholarship centers on why and how. Why have we not studied this process? Does our discomfort prevent us? Or are we afraid of what we might find?
Using an interdisciplinary approach, Smith not only goes into the philosophical and historical development of modes of dehumanization, but how religion, science and biology have been used to bolster both the practice and justification of demeaning others. By delving into how humans identify and react to difference, he also reflects on the cognitive and emotional processes we use.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence for me was his inclusion of research into human biology, cognitive science and the animal world. His synthesis of the biologic and psychological impulses behind our ability to dehumanize in comparison to similar species, such as chimpanzees, made a great deal of uncomfortable sense. He finds: 1) we are biologically wired to categorize strangers as “other”, 2) because of our propensity to order our world according to our perception of kinds and essences, there is a definable process we adhere to when categorizing who is “us” and “not us,” 3) as a result, we are all capable of extreme violence or cruelty given the right push, and 4) we are unique in the animal kingdom for so doing.
Smith doesn’t stop there. He confronts us with the reality that perpetrators of genocide are not outliers or “monsters” but often just like us. Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil,” he points out that we all have the capability to dehumanize, and argues that we must work to recognize and refute these impulses if we are to rise above them. Since these are complex social and psychological constructs, the same ability that allows us to dehumanize can also help us overcome our innate, and arguably submerged, hard-wired reactions to difference.
The evidence Smith uses to craft his theory shows that our propensity to dehumanization comes out of a complex of biology, social pressure, psychology around real and perceived danger, politics, and propaganda. Yet, our ability to reflect and make the better choice offers some hope for change. Such change, however, requires effort. As Smith notes in his conclusion, we have barely tried.
As the first Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow, I have worked to incorporate explorations of race and diversity into my teaching. When I designed a class on world slavery, it allowed me to introduce books that have won the prize. This spring, I added Smith’s book to my reading list, and began the first week of class with his chapter on slavery, “The Rhetoric of Enmity.”
Student reaction has been profound. The students immediately took to his ideas and incorporated them into their essays and final projects. Some have offered insightful critiques and suggestions for expanding on his theory, while others have used his ideas as a basis from which to interrogate past and present constructions of race, class, sexuality and gender.
Though Smith doesn’t focus specifically on slave systems or gender in “Less than Human,” his outline of the process of dehumanization has changed the way I think about and teach slavery. Is slavery inherently a dehumanizing process, through the fact of being owned? Are there slave systems where this is not the case? How can dehumanization be applied to issues of gender and sexuality? And, in considering the continuation of dehumanization tactics today: What more can I do to help my students critically assess the social and cultural messages they receive?
If we accept that we are all prone to certain kinds of essentialist thinking, it is vital that we give students every tool to challenge their own assumptions, and to listen empathetically to others. This type of intellectual discipline takes a lot of effort, and we need people who can and are willing to do the work. My students at Case have that will and ability, and they inspire me to hope.
Diaz is on the board of advisors for Freedom University and took some of Colbert’s ribbing as he explained the concept of this new volunteer “university.” Be sure to watch to the end to see the surprise gift Colbert asks Diaz to take back to campus.
Toni Morrison doesn’t hold her tongue on anything she deems important for the masses to know. At 82, she has earned that right.
In speaking with freshman cadets at the United States Military Academy, Morrison expressed her views on the war in Iraq and shared her inspiration for her latest book, “Home.” The novel, about a Korean war veteran named Frank Money, who is struggling with PTSD and the segregated south, is part of the English curriculum at West Point. Lt. Col. Scott Chancellor, director of the freshman English program, selected the book for their classes thanks to its relevant messages to troops today, particularly as it touched on race and trauma.
Col. Scott Krawczyk, the head of the academy’s English and philosophy programs, tied the book’s themes into the larger picture of the academy’s training:
“At West Point we ensure that cadets are made to struggle with moral ambiguity, so that when they confront tangled scenarios, they will be able to do that well. Morrison gives us just enough psychological complication of Frank Money to open up an understanding of how desperately malignant the realm of war can be.”
During the conversation, Morrison was vocal about her disdain for the war in Iraq (“I dare you to tell me a sane reason we went to Iraq”) and expressed concern about the number of veteran suicides (a recent report shows the suicide rate for veterans has risen 22% in the past 14 years).
Watch below as Morrison talks about “Home” and her intention to explore the themes of masculinity, war, and race.
During my freshman year at Kent State University, I was a little wary when I saw one of the books listed on my syllabus in my English class: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. My tongue stumbled over his name and I sat there trying all the possible pronunciations until I figured it might be best to just ask the professor.
I grabbed the book from the university bookstore and went back to my dorm to read a few chapters. Instead, I finished the whole book that evening.
Set in Nigeria, highlighting the conflict between traditional Igbo culture and colonialism, Things Fall Apart hooked me in a way that few books have since. The story of Okonkwo and his quest to be noble and respected, unlike his father Unoka, deeply resonated with me and millions of other readers. Whenever I would hear the book being discussed, I would interject myself into the conversation (despite my introverted nature) because I simply couldn’t get enough of the story.
It was his most famous work, going on to sell more than 10 million copies around the world. He inspired an entire generation of authors, including our 2007 winner for fiction, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In late 2012, Adichie wrote an essay detailing his influence on her life and work:
I grew up writing imitative stories. Of characters eating food I had never seen and having conversations I had never heard. They might have been good or bad, those stories, but they were emotionally false, they were not mine. Then came a glorious awakening: Chinua Achebe’s fiction. Here were familiar characters who felt true; here was language that captured my two worlds; here was a writer writing not what he felt he should write but what he wanted to write. His work was free of anxiety, wore its own skin effortlessly. It emboldened me, not to find my voice, but to speak in the voice I already had.
I am so deeply sad to hear of his passing, but feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to spend time with his work. There is nothing more I can say but, thank you.
Below is a short video, of CNN’s “African Voices” program from 2009, which profiled Chinua Achebe.
American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah is not allowed into China.
He mentioned this fact at the end of his well-attended March talk in Cleveland, noting he is unwelcome because of his support of Liu Xiaobo, a writer and political activist who won the Nobel peace prize in 2010. At the ceremony in Oslo, Liu was represented by an empty chair.
“Many, many more writers would be in prison today if we weren’t constantly popping off about it,” Appiah said of Liu’s incarceration. “Still, we haven’t managed to get him out.
“Chinese people complain to me about my regular complaints about Chinese human rights,” Appiah told several hundred listeners assembled in Severance Hall for his lecture on making moral revolutions. “I say, ‘Don’t complain about my complaint – complain about us, the United States.’”
This robust dynamic is caught, Appiah writes, by Thomas Jefferson, who referred to “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” in the American Declaration of Independence. This is “why the nation’s honor can be mobilized to motivate its citizens,” Appiah writes in his 2010 book, “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.”
His latest book is a scholarly and elegant examination of three practices—dueling in 18th Century England, foot binding in China, and Britain’s transatlantic slave trade—and how each came to a decisive end. All collapsed fairly abruptly.
“Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn’t, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments,” Appiah writes. “Dueling was always murderous and irrational; foot binding was always painfully crippling; slavery was always an assault on the humanity of the slave.”
Still, foot binding, which thrived for a millennium, ended in the span of a generation: Political scientist Gerry Mackie reports that “the population of Tinghsien, a conservative rural area 125 miles south of Peking, went from 99 percent bound in 1889 to 94 percent bound in 1899 to zero bound in 1919.”
In his book, Appiah calls this “the great unbinding” and attributes it to Christian missionaries campaigning against the practice combined with an awakening of national honor. The Chinese elite were increasingly shamed that outsiders condemned the practice as backward.
But as he gave the F. Joseph Callahan Distinguished lecture, Appiah did not dwell on foot-binding. He spoke, softly and forcefully, about cracks in U.S. national honor: 25 percent of the world’s prison population incarcerated in a country with four percent of the global population, and a lack of “democratic discourse” over drone strikes abroad, which Appiah said, had “killed huge numbers of absolutely innocent people, more than were killed in the World Trade Center.”
In sampling historic moral revolutions, Appiah cited Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, John Locke, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, “the Bernie Madoff problem” and the 1792 novel by Frances Burney, “Cecilia.” He ranged fluidly across cultures and centuries.
Appiah suggested that U.S. students—such as those at CWRU—were bound up in the nation’s honor, and the beneficiaries of “one of the best university systems in the world.” He expressed optimism that his listeners could be instigators of the next moral revolution.
“When you point out that people aren’t living up to their standards,” Appiah concluded, “you are appealing to their national honor, which, by the way, is what was crucial to the ending of foot binding.”
Chances are, Joyce Carol Oates’ latest work is unlike anything you’ve ever read before. “The Accursed” takes readers on a wild ride through Princeton, N.J., in the years 1905-1906, viewed through a host of characters who are all struggling with their own demons as the result of the Curse (always capitalized).
In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, the Princeton University professor and Anisfield-Wolf jury member completed an interview with the Seattle Times in which she explored some of the themes in the book more in depth. Oates began writing the novel in the 80s and left it alone for more than 20 years while pursuing other projects. She came back to it a few years ago and emerged with a novel some are calling Oates’ best work yet.
As Stephen King said in his New York Times review, this book just might be “the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel: E. L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’ set in Dracula’s castle. It’s dense, challenging, problematic, horrifying, funny, prolix and full of crazy people. You should read it.” His review is fun, which is always a good sign for the book at hand. He showcases the complex and ambiguous nature of the novel, leading readers down a path he himself isn’t 100% sure exists and feeling comfortable without a firm grasp on the truth Oates presents. But such complexities often make for good storytelling.
Boston—U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young turns 81 this week. He was barely into his 30s when he traveled with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and fewer than eight other civil rights activists to confront the violent, insidious racism of Birmingham, Ala.
Wearing a blue bow tie, a sweater vest, and a calm mien, Young sat down at Harvard University for “A Freedom Fighter Looks Back: A Conversation With Ambassador Andrew Young on the 50th Anniversary of King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
“Today, key provisions of the Voting Rights Act are under attack,” observed Young’s host, Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and Anisfield-Wolf jury chair.
The afternoon began with a distilled tutorial on the legendary letter. Jonathan Rieder, a Barnard College sociologist, played an audiotape of King talking about the water cannon and police dogs of T. Eugene (Bull) Connor, Birmingham’s notorious public safety commissioner.
“We will leave them gutted by their own barbarity,” King said on the tape, as Young sat listening, his eyes closed. King saw the water cannon – which would hospitalize the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth — as a form of baptism. “Growing up, I was dog-bitten for nothing,” he said. “I don’t mind being bitten for freedom.” King described Bull Connor moving around in a white tank: “They can get their dogs, get their water hoses, Bull Connor can even get his white tank. Our dark faces will stand up in front of that white tank.”
Quietly, Young suggested his listeners “get the frame right. We went there with a plan, and we started back in January . My job was nursing the negotiation process – the outreach to the Episcopal bishop, business leaders, and students.”
The economic boycott of Birmingham – supporters bought nothing but food and medicine – was 95 percent successful, Young said. From January through April 1963, the slogan was “blue jeans for Easter.” All the while, Young, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King, and Shuttlesworth pressed the Birmingham department store owners to allow their black “maids” to sell clothes. They demanded the segregated signs over drinking fountains come down.
“They cussed us out,” Young remembered. Meanwhile, in Alabama’s largest city, a young black delivery boy had been castrated and dozens of bombings of black homes and churches were unsolved.
“Martin had not really recovered,” Young said. “He was stabbed in the chest in ’58. He was arrested in the middle of the night in ’60 and put in chains, then driven four and half hours on the bad, back roads of Georgia in the back of a paddy wagon with a German shepherd. He was just 30 years old, and that was as close to a nervous breakdown as he came – that was what killed Steven Biko,” the South African whose 1977 death after 11 hours in a police Land Rover helped draw global attention to the evils of apartheid.
In Birmingham, King was “being pressed to give up. He was thrown in jail, he was despairing, and then he wrote that beautiful letter,” Young said. Galvanized by a public “Call for Unity” from eight Alabama clergy – who called King an outsider and a troublemaker – King used the margins of a newspaper to write what became a sacred text of the 20th century.
Young described King as a prophet, but insisted the rest of the activists were unremarkable. He quoted his daughter Andrea, who edited his 1996 memoir, “An Easy Burden.” She said: “You were just some get-down brothers in the right place at the right time and you did the right thing.”
Young made it clear that his time in Birmingham was “a religious experience,” that he felt the presence of God when King was in jail and the nation newly stunned by television scenes of dogs tearing at the legs of nonviolent protesters, and blasts from fire hoses knocking children down.
The protesters returned, he remembered, and someone shouted for prayer: “You had 5,000 black folk on their knees, and what you heard was not so much prayer as a moan. We were singing, ‘I want Jesus to walk with me’ and, even with Bull Connor yelling at them, the firemen let their hoses drop, and the dogs didn’t bark, and we got up and walked to City Hall.”
Young, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, joked that the Baptist men around him didn’t take his faith too seriously, but he saw that jail – in that context — could be sanctifying: “We had Bible study three times a day and freedom songs all day and all night. For some of the youngsters, it was the closest they had to a loving spiritual experience.”
The movement began, Young said, to fight racism, war, and poverty: “Now, legal racism is dead and war is increasingly seen as unpopular and irrational. But we criminalize poverty and put poor people in jail at a greater expense than it would be to educate them.”
During the questions, a young woman asked the ambassador to identify a few key characteristics that will help new movements rise. Carolyn McClain Young, the ambassador’s wife, spoke up from the audience. She advised the student to look into her own heart, and to take a lesson from King’s father, “Daddy King”:
“In life, everyone is given a cross. When you really arrive is when you pick up the cross not given you. When you pick up the other’s cross and carry it.”
She sat down and Young waited to catch her eye. He held it for a second, and nodded.
With so much negative news spilling out of Chicago each day, we’re happy to see at least one bright spot among the tragedies.
Isabel WIlkerson’s 2010 work “The Warmth of Other Suns” was named the next selection of the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One
Chicago” program, announced by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday.
Of the selection Emanuel said:
“Isabel Wilkerson’s book brings to life the stories of African Americans who left their homes in the South in search of a better life. These are the stories of people who helped create the Chicago we know today – and of people continuing to come to our city each day in hopes of finding their dream. Each of us has a story to tell about our family’s path to Chicago and how we all helped to make Chicago the most American of American cities.”
On her Facebook page, Wilkerson said she was “overjoyed to see the city that drew Richard Wright, Ida Mae Gladney, and millions more, now embrace the story of the Great Migration in such a big way!”
This is but one of the many honors Wilkerson has received for her work over the past few years. It is all well-deserved, as “Warmth” is one of those books that gets better with each read, and one of the few that becomes more and more enjoyable the more people dissect it.
March 10th, 2013 was the 100th anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman, a woman whose name is synonymous with bravery and freedom.
Growing up, I attended a small public school in East Cleveland, where each of the students was required to learn the following poem by Eloise Greenfield:
Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
Wasn’t scared of nothing neither
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And wasn’t going to stay one either
“Farewell!” she sang to her friends one night
She was mighty sad to leave ’em
But she ran away that dark, hot night
Ran looking for her freedom
She ran to the woods and she ran through the woods
With the slave catchers right behind her
And she kept on going till she got to the North
Where those mean men couldn’t find her
Nineteen times she went back South
To get three hundred others
She ran for her freedom nineteen times
To save Black sisters and brothers
Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
Wasn’t scared of nothing neither
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And didn’t stay one either
And didn’t stay one either
For young black children being taught by (mostly) black teachers, this was but one way they introduced us to our heritage. The Harriet Tubman I was introduced to was fierce and fearless. As Greenfield wrote, she “didn’t take no stuff.” This woman was one of the giants whose shoulders we stood on.
And now, on the anniversary of her death, we are reminded that her legend still looms large over us but she remains largely a mystery. Our very own Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s most recent piece for The Root, “How Did Harriet Tubman Become A Legend?,” explores what historians know thus far of this American hero:
In 1849, a young woman hurried along a path cutting through a marsh in Poplar Neck, Md., near the town of Preston. She was a slave, barely 5 feet tall. She was scarred from several beatings. She alternated between walking and running, like thousands of other slaves had before her, desperately hoping to cross the Mason-Dixon Line to the get to the North, to freedom in Philadelphia. With a great deal of luck and skill, she made it. And what did she do once she was free? Unlike virtually any other person before her or after, this fugitive slave turned around and walked back into slavery, counter-intuitively, in order to free other slaves. And for this, she would become a legend.
We’ve long felt honored to have Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the nation’s most preeminent African American scholars, as our jury chair. Having met him numerous times over the past few years, I’m always awed by his depth of knowledge and his ease in front of a crowd.
All of this makes him a wonderful human being and all the more deserving of his latest honor. Henry Louis Gates Jr is the one of the latest Americans to have his portrait displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. In a portrait commissioned by Harvard University, Gates is depicted with several influential works, those of W.E.B. DuBois, Wole Soyinka and Kwame Anthony Appiah.
We are very, very proud for his portrait to be included amongst some of the most prominent people in U.S. history. Kudos on a well-deserved honor!
Somewhere, a canny business professor may be plotting to put Mohsin Hamid’s astringent new novel into an MBA course. It would be a brilliant move.
Not because the advice it contains is revelatory — “Get an Education” and “Work for Yourself” are actual chapter headings — but because Hamid’s tight, mesmerizing story raises the thorny questions that cluster around the bloom of wealth. Indeed, readers will detect a whiff on cultural criticism in the eight words of the new book’s title.
As it opens, “How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” poses as a self-help book. Following this convention, it addresses the reader as “you.” The text finds you as a small boy “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning.” This is because you are weak, your eyes yellow with hepatitis E, and your family’s fortunes turn on your health. When you recover, your parents decide to move to the city, the first step on your trajectory toward riches.
You don’t get a name, nor does the city, nor does the nation, although Time magazine has decided it’s Pakistan. That will no doubt amuse Hamid, who won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2008 for his hypnotic novel, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” The author grew up partly in the United States, and partly in Lahore. Yet in interviews around “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Hamid observed that he was sometimes asked if he was a version of the title character, never the American listening across a cafe table to that character’s story.
Like “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Hamid’s new novel is taut and smart and subversive. Each of the 12 chapters starts with a playful verbal squall about self-help. “Distasteful though it may be,” begins chapter seven, “it was inevitable in a self-help book such as this, that we would eventually find ourselves broaching the topic of violence. Becoming filthy rich requires a degree of unsqueamishness, whether in rising Asia or anywhere else.”
Hamid is echoing French novelist Honore de Balzac’s riff that “behind every great fortune there is a great crime.” This idea helped animate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and like Gatsby, the protagonist in Hamid’s new novel longs for an unattainable woman. Here she is just called “the pretty girl.” Despite such fable-like distancing, Hamid manages the significant trick of seducing his readers to care about these characters, even as he toys with our expectations for a rags-to-riches story.
So dear “you” first moves around his new town on a bicycle, then a motorcycle, then in a rebuilt truck. As the conveyances become more luxurious, the commentary becomes more pointed, and Hamid’s pleasurable light touch fades. By the time “you” has become a water industrialist, you are keeping company with “four pump-action-shotgun-wielding security guards” and “the aquifer below the city is plummeting and becoming more contaminated every year, poisonous chemicals and biological toxins seeping into it like adulterants into a heroin junkie’s collapsing vein.”
Clearly, Hamid can write. His is a confident, confiding prose. But underneath, as in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” a quiet fury gathers. The reader travels these pages fueled by dread. Capitalism may have won the globe’s embrace, but becoming rich is still filthy work. Importantly, reading this latest Mohsin Hamid novel is no work at all. May it work its subversive way into the curriculum of business schools everywhere.
It’s something that most of us in America take for granted—the right to an education.
We don’t think about what it must feel like to be denied one of the most basic rights, until events like the attempted assassination attempt of 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai at the hands of the Taliban puncture our collective consciousness. She was a vocal advocate for education for girls in Pakistan, who had dreams of becoming a doctor. While Malala will make a full recovery and return to her advocacy work, she is not alone in her fight for access to education.
The new film, “Girl Rising,” explores the lives of nine young women around the world, each one fighting for a chance to get the education that is the key to their future. Presented by 10×10, a social action campaign, the film features nine different stories written by nine different authors. Our very own Edwidge Danticat, a 2005 winner for fiction, contributed the portion of the film that focuses on Wadley, a young Haitian girl who is determined to get an education, even after she is repeatedly turned away from her schoolhouse.
I, for one, can’t wait to see this film. Go to GirlRising.com to learn more about the movie, find a screening near you and buy tickets. The film opens on March 7.
We were thrilled to receive an invitation to participate in Toni Morrison’s first live digital book signing, courtesy of Google Play. We weren’t sure what to expect from the format—how would the digital signing of books work? How long would she speak? Would technical difficulties get in the way?
We were pleasantly surprised at how well the event went. Toni Morrison broadcast live from Google’s New York offices and the event was streamed live over several websites. Readers were encouraged to submit questions beforehand and a lucky few were selected to speak with Ms. Morrison herself. After the event, readers would be able to download signed digital copies from the Google Play store.
Casual, comfortable and inviting, the digital book signing was billed as a first-of-its-kind event, one we hope more authors consider when trying to determine how to best connect with readers. Ms. Morrison answered questions about the best advice she’s ever received, what advice she’d give to struggling writers, and what books, if given the chance, she might want to go back and change.
Editor Kelsey McKinney summed it up best in her review of the event (she was one of the lucky ones chosen to ask a question):
…it brought something to the reading community that has been missing: live interviews with the best minds of our time that anyone can watch…A big thank you to Google Play, and Toni Morrison for transforming a normal Wednesday afternoon into something I won’t forget.