Poet Joshua Bennett adjusted the mic stand at Kent State University. “I was raised Baptist,” he warned the audience in Oscar Ritchie Hall. “I need energy from you. I’m open to any and all forms of enthusiasm.”
Dressed in dark skinny jeans, a cranberry sweater vest and Oxford shirt, Bennett steadied himself and spoke of his recent discovery of Lucille Clifton’s poetry. Using the last stanza of Clifton’s “Won’t You Celebrate With Me,” he began his poem, “Say it, Sing it, as the Spirit Leads,” written in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict: “Come, celebrate with me. Every day something has tried to kill me and failed.”
A special guest of KSU’s Wick Poetry Center, the man from Yonkers, N.Y. has entered the national conversation during the past three years, driven in part by his viral poem, 2010’s “10 Things I Want To Say To A Black Woman.” A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Bennett has performed at the NAACP Image Awards, the Kennedy Center, and President Obama’s Evening of Poetry and Music at the White House. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Princeton University.
Bennett said he didn’t begin to explore poetry until he was 17, when a friend invited him to a spoken word event. “Afterward, I bought a CD and a T-shirt, took a couple workshops, and my life changed,” he said. “I was a hip-hop kid before I started with poetry.”
Now in his early 20s, that hip-hop influence still saturates both his content and his delivery. Through his 45-minute set, he veered from racial politics, to love discoveries, to questions of identity, sometimes within the same piece. He wants his poetry, he said, to help eradicate shame.
Bennett has three siblings, each with a disability: his older sister is deaf, his older brother is schizophrenic and his younger brother is autistic. “For Levi,” his tribute to his younger brother with autism, ends with:
Tell them Levi is just shorthand for levitate.
That your calling is to the clouds
and you would pay them a lot more attention
but you are simply too busy having a conversation with God right now.
Then smile for them. Smile big. Smile pretty.
A woman in the audience told Bennett that hearing him speak inspired her to take her poetry more seriously. Bennett looked humbled and then offered her a word of advice. “Poems should be archeology,” Bennett said. “Write the things that cost you. Every poem has to cost you something if it’s going to be good.”
Watch Joshua Bennett perform “Plankton,” a love poem
When Whoopi Goldberg made plans to revive her one-woman Broadway show on Moms Mabley, she ran into a problem: few people remembered the comedy pioneer, who died in 1975.
Goldberg shelved the show and switched to making a documentary on Mabley and her place in American culture. “She loved to tell stories,” Goldberg told ABC’s Good Morning America. “There’s something about Moms, in finding that she had such a large part in civil rights, that she was the first female stand-up, and how funny she was—the jokes stand up to today.”
Born Loretta Mary Aikin in the Brevard N.C., of 1894, she was one of 16 children. Loretta ran away to Cleveland at age 14, joined a traveling minstrel show, and came out as a lesbian at age 27. She became one of the most successful performers on the Chitlin’ Circuit, earning $10,000 a week at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem at the height of her popularity.
Goldberg ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund the documentary, which premiers on HBO tonight at 8 p.m. Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, and Joan Rivers lent their time and talent to this project, to help rescue Mabley from the margins of cultural memory.
Despite 50 years on stage, few recordings of the comedian exist, partly because African-American acts often went undocumented through most of the 20th century. Goldberg and her production crew fill the void with animated re-creations of Mabley’s creative genius. Her material was often blue, as Cosby notes, but she cracked the mainstream during the 1960s, when she performed at Carnegie Hall and on television for “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Smothers Brothers.”
Mabley’s racy jokes and biting punchlines cut to the racial tensions of the era. “I wanted this to be a reminder of what we fought for, how we did it, the various ways people used their artistry to say, hey, we’re going to make a change,” Goldberg said.
Goldberg’s directorial debut airs tonight. Watch this brief snippet below:
“We have all won the lottery of life,” Sheryl WuDunn said she criss-crossed the stage during her recent appearance at Kent State University’s presidental speakers series. Her husband and co-presenter, Nicholas Kristof, sat off to the side and nodded in agreement. “Once you have most of your material needs met, as most of us sitting here have, there are few things that actually elevate your level of happiness, and one of those things is contributing to a cause larger than yourself.”
Co-authors of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, WuDunn and Kristof are a powerhouse couple. The pair won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square protests; Kristof went on to win an individual Pulitzer in 2006 for his Dafur genocide coverage as a New York Times columnist. The first Asian-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, WuDunn currently serves as a senior managing director at Mid-Market Securities, a boutique investment firm.
WuDunn and Kristof lived in Beijing in the early 1990s and were struck by the degree to which inequalities were targeted at girls. While there, they traveled to a small, rural village and met DiMon Ju, a bright sixth-grader forced to stay home from school because her family could not afford the $13 annual tuition.
Kristof wrote about Ju’s plight and the implications for hundreds of thousands girls just like her in his column. Soon after, letters from readers poured in, many containing $13 checks.
And then, there was one wire transfer of $10,000. Hurriedly, Kristof and WuDunn set up a fund to keep thousands of girls in school. It wasn’t until they called the donor to thank him for his generosity that they learned there had been a mistake: the donor only sent $100. A banking error was the source of the misunderstanding. Kristof quickly secured a donation of the difference from the bank’s president.
That village and the surrounding communities, Kristof noted, have improved drastically since the 1990s, but that particular village that received donations has seen the most progress, a feat Kristof credits to the increased education of girls and women. “The central moral challenge of the world is the oppression of women and girls worldwide,” Kristof said. “Gender discrimination is lethal.”
Kristof and WuDunn exposed the crowd to the horrors of human trafficking—girls as young as toddlers being kidnapped and sold to brothels, where they have no say over the sexual acts they are forced to perform on often violent customers. The couple urged the Kent State community to join the fight for women’s rights.
“I bought two Cambodian girls from a brothel,” Kristof said. “I bought one for $150 and the other was a little over $200. I got receipts. When you get a receipt for buying another human being in the 21st century, something is profoundly wrong.”
Marvel Comics, home to some of the world’s most recognizable superheroes, has widened diversity among its trademark characters with the announcement of its newest superhero — Kamala Khan, a Muslim-American Jersey teen with shape-shifting abilities.
Khan will make her debut in early 2014. Khan’s fascination with Marvel superhero Carol Danvers leads her to adopt the same secret identity: Ms. Marvel.
Editor Sana Amanat used her own American coming-of-age as the basis of the new series. “We strive to show the diverse world that exists out of our window,” she said. “[The series is] to show that outsiders don’t exist — we’re all insiders.”
Axel Alonso, Marvel’s editor-in-chief, called the addition a sign of the times. “The Marvel universe is best when it reflects the diversity of the world around it, but sculpts a narrative that is universal,” he said of the world’s largest comic book publisher.
Rula Jebreal, a foreign-policy analyst for MSNBC, praised Marvel Comic’s decision to cast a Muslim girl as a hero in a post 9/11 world. “Marvel’s work is a watershed moment in breaking down fear and ignorance, and creating greater awareness and familiarity,” she wrote on The Daily Beast.
This isn’t the first time Marvel has flipped the script — in 2011 they introduced Miles Morales, a biracial teen who takes on Spiderman’s identity after Peter Parker dies. The update garnered mixed results. Spider-Man creator Stan Lee praised the story line, and others thought Morales was a great role model for young men of color, but sales were modest.
Culture-watchers will have a sense of Khan’s popularity after her series begins February 6.
The potency of literature went on vivid display in early November when readers gathered around the writers who won this year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prizes. They started with an intense and intimate two-hour session at Sinclair Community College in downtown Dayton.
“I need to give a shout-out to Wendell Berry, whose ‘The Gift of Good Land’ was one of the most important books of my life,” boomed Sinclair President Steven Lee Johnson, turning to the celebrated Kentucky author in praise of the 1981 essay collection, one of Berry’s 50 titles.
A bit later, a woman in a pink sweater rose, lifted her chin to Berry and fiercely declared, “Your words have changed my life, over and over. I carry your books when I am sad and frightened and they have changed things for me.” She paused, looked at the 300-member audience. “How awesome is that?”
Berry, 79, in Dayton to accept his distinguished achievement award, decided to address the fervor. “When people say my writing has changed their life, I feel complimented, but also a little frightened,” he said. “I didn’t sit down to change anybody’s life.” His eyes sought out the woman. “I think my book spoke to something in you that changed your life. That is to your credit and you should not give the credit to me.”
Nevertheless, credit abounded at the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a legacy of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that negotiated a stop to the Bosnian War. Established a decade later, the award seeks to recognize literature as “an enduring and effective tool for fostering peace.” It is now eight years old.
“The writers who win see the sincerity of the people who come and the people who work on this,” said Sharon Rab, founder and co-chair of the awards. “There is an entire community dedicated to peace and literature and the connection between the two.”
Pat Fife, a teacher at suburban Dayton’s Kettering-Fairmount High School, said her students were studying human trafficking with a class of like-minded students in Bosnia. Both groups read Ben Skinner’s “A Crime So Monstrous” about “modern-day slavery.” It won the 2009 Dayton prize.
“I thought it might be a little controversial, but people have been more than willing to engage it,” Fife said. Her students linked up with a nearby Methodist Church that works to fight human trafficking.
In Dayton, Solomon declared that “human diversity matters just as much as species diversity.” He noted that roughly 50 years ago Time magazine could denigrate gays as sub-human and the Atlantic Monthly could recommend exterminating infants with Down Syndrome. “I wanted to understand how something universally understood as an illness turned into an identity,” he said.
Such transformation doesn’t arrive all at once. One man took Solomon aside in Dayton and demanded the writer admit that “this gay rights thing has gone too far.” Solomon quietly told the stranger he would not admit that.
The author, who received a thunderous ovation at the awards ceremony, riffed on his title. “What parent hasn’t looked at their child,” he asked, “and said, ‘What planet did you come from?’”
Growing up, Solomon read and admired Berry’s poetry, and Berry said, for his part, he was thunderstruck in 1963 by Harry Caudill’s nonfiction classic “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” a story about rural poverty that mattered.
Maaza Mengiste, Dayton’s first runner-up in 2011 for her novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” said she had been greatly influenced by Tim O’Brien, who was on hand as last year’s distinguished achievement winner.
“Peace is a shy thing,” O’Brien told the crowd. “It doesn’t brag about itself. We are at peace in this room and we take it for granted. It’s by its absence that peace is known. Peace is a value we don’t feel until the wolf is at the door.”
Fiction winner Adam Johnson spoke eloquently about the wolf’s stranglehold on North Korea, also captured in his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son.” He asked the Dayton audience to imagine the isolation on the northern half of the peninsula, separated from its own literature. “Not a single play or poem has been smuggled out of North Korea in 60 years, unlike, even, the worse days of the Russian gulag.”
Closer to home, nonfiction runner-up Gilbert King explored “Devil in the Grove,” a harrowing, 1949 Florida case of racial injustice. It also won a Pulitzer Prize this year and centers on the legal mastery of a young Thurgood Marshall.
The crusading lawyer “was never surprised by the verdicts in the South,” King observed. “But he did say, ‘sometimes I get awfully tired of trying to save the white man’s soul.’”
International outrage over the “Grovewood boys” case in Florida helped raise the cash that supported the NAACP’s work on Brown vs. Board of Education, King said, ushering forward a new America.
Berry, lionized by O’Brien’s introduction, brought the crowd back to Earth. “There is a certain comedy in hearing one’s self praised,” he said. “I am embarrassed that I have nothing to present but me.”
The title derives from an observation by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. As America pulled out of Vietnam, Kissinger noted dryly that being an enemy of the U.S. could be dangerous, but being a friend could be fatal. Still, “within a few years, nearly a million people came here from Southeast Asia and have become a critical part of our nation’s fabric,” Johnson said. “Some are members of Congress now.”
The thousands of Iraqis who aided the United States – in the Green Zone, as translators, doing myriad support tasks – haven’t been nearly as fortunate.
Johnson’s host, “Facing History and Ourselves,” strives to teach students about perpetrators of violence, about bystanders and the rare individuals it calls “upstanders.” Mark Swaim-Fox, who directs Facing History’s Cleveland office, introduced the writer as an “upstander.”
Johnson painted himself an unlikely champion. In 2006, he was recuperating from injuries in his parents’ Chicago home, soured on his civilian work for USAID in Baghdad and Fallujah. But he opened an email from Yaghdan, an Iraqi colleague who had been spotted leaving the Green Zone. The next day Yaghdan awoke to a decapitated dog and a death threat. He fled with his wife Haifa to Dubai and sent Johnson one terse sentence: “People are trying to kill me and I need your help.”
The email led Johnson to write an op-ed piece, published in the Los Angeles Times December 15, 2006, under the headline “Safeguarding Our Allies,” the first major American newspaper to broach the plight of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis. Within days, Johnson’s inbox was flooded with pleas from Iraqis in similar straits. Frightened and uncertain what he might do, Johnson opened a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and started entering names.
The spreadsheet grew into “The List,” and then, more formally, “The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies,” a nonprofit organization that has become the largest pro-bono American legal effort on behalf of refugees. “For the last seven years, I’ve been trying to deal with the consequences of that 1,000-word op-ed,” Johnson said, smiling.
The work also attracted independent filmmaker Beth A. Murphy, whose documentary, “The List,” draws a parallel between Oskar Schindler and Johnson.
Her subject would no doubt blanch at that comparison. As he spoke in Cleveland, Johnson repeatedly circled back to the word “frustrated,” stressing the “narcoleptic bureaucracy” that has thwarted the will of Congress, expressed in the passage of the “Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act,” which authorized 25,000 visas. That Act expired this October 1, some 17,000 visas unused.
“Bush or Obama, the bureaucrats all say the same thing: ‘9/11 changed everything. We need to keep the Homeland safe,’” Johnson said. “But has 9/11 changed this country so much that we can’t make the distinction between our enemies and our friends?”
Some of the people waiting for visas dragged wounded Americans out of harms’ way, only to lose their own legs doing so, Johnson said. It pains him that England and France evacuated their Iraqi employees within weeks, while his organization has documented that some 1,000 Iraqis were slain while their former employer, the United States, dithered.
Two who did arrive safely were Yaghdan and Haifa, who have become parents to a son. Yaghdan has earned his MBA.
Kevin Powers, winner of a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf book award for “The Yellow Birds,” called Johnson’s new memoir “a heartbreaking reminder of the wreckage we’ve left behind in Iraq. And it is unafraid to ask some of the most essential questions regarding our involvement there: Are we who we say we are? And if we are, why haven’t we kept our word? I urge everyone to read it.”
Fresh off the paperback release of his newest work, This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz swung by Cleveland State University in October for its Cultural Crossings seminar. We caught up with our 2008 fiction winner for his reflections on winning an Anisfield-Wolf award. “It puts you in remarkably excellent company,” Diaz said, and we couldn’t agree more.
In the harem, women did not go naked. Nor did they wear flimsy, see-through harem pants.
Despite the panting Western imagination, so memorably examined by Edward Said in his 1978 book “Orientalism,” the classic Western fantasy of the harem never existed in fact, reports Lisa Nielson, the Anisfield-Wolf scholar at Case Western Reserve University.
“The harem is the symbol of the Orient – women lounging, indolent, beautiful, passive objects,” Nielson said during an October lecture on “Improvisation and Transgression: Musicians of the Harem,” given for the Baker-Nord Center on Humanities at Case.
In the artistic imagination of Western painters, harems contained reliable tropes: feathers, the hookah, an exotic despot, unclothed women and often musicians. “Clothes are a sign of status, and playing musical instruments and smoking while naked is actually not that comfortable,” joked Nielson, who teaches a SAGES course on the women’s quarters in history and in the Western imagination.
Perhaps the Western nonsense reached its nadir, she said, in the 1965 Elvis Presley vehicle, “Harum Scarum.” This movie, in which Presley plays an American singer enlisted by sinister forces in the assassination of an Arab king whose daughter he loves, is so dreadful that Nielson said she “bought it for a dollar and I paid too much.”
Nielson stressed that there is much to discover about the historical harem, which is only one specific form of gender segregation among many. Such segregation is found in the Bible, ancient Greece, China, Korea, India, and Europe. The word “harem” as a reference to the women’s quarters is specific to Ottoman Empire; other cultures had different terms and rules for these spaces. Moreover, Nielson noted, “the women of the women’s quarters were highly educated, skilled, and, often quite ruthless.”
The role of the musician was one of entertainer and intermediary in the harem, reports Nielson, who earned her doctorate in ancient musicology and gender studies. As in the West, there was a struggle in Islam over whether music stirs indecency or represents a pathway to the divine. “In the West, angels play music and intercede for us,” Nielson observed. “Music itself is the intermediary. Among Sufis, music was a way of getting closer to God. Therefore, the musician, who was frequently a highly skilled member of the women’s quarters, had access to the ruler’s body and soul.”
We are very far from harem pants, indeed.
At the conclusion of this year’s ceremony, a number of Nigerians in attendance approached our lifetime achievement winner Wole Soyinka, for a chance to get close to the man they admired. A few bowed in his presence. He returned their kindness, speaking with a few before being whisked away to the book signing. We spoke with Soyinka to hear his thoughts on being honored for a lifetime of work and what it means to get that type of reception at this point in his career: