Thursday, July 27, 2017
July 27, 2017: Talks and Events: The Harlem Renaissance for BOLLI
[On Tuesday July 25th, I’ll be talking to the Central Massachusetts Genealogical Society on the topic of “Remembering the Salem Witch Trials: The Limits and Possibilities of Public History.” So this week I wanted to highlight five recent talks and events I’ve given or been part of—please share your own experiences in comments!]
On two unexpected connections I made in a talk for prospective adult learners.
I’ve written a great deal in this space about my very happy, nearly a decade old link to the Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area (ALFA) program, and in this post I highlighted my new but evolving connection to BOLLI, the Brandeis University Lifelong Learning program. I’ll be leading my first BOLLI study group (pairing historical ethnic writers with contemporary writers, with novels by Charles Chesnutt and David Bradley as the centerpiece) this fall, but earlier this month had the chance to give a lecture on three icons of the Harlem Renaissance as part of a BOLLI recruitment event. The program has been developing closer ties to the Waltham community, and this event offered a brunch and information session for more than eighty Waltham seniors and prospective BOLLI members. The program director invited me to give the event’s keynote lecture, and I decided to talk about W.E.B. Du Bois, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, and what we can learn from some of their pivotal moments and texts for our own moment and culture.
While of course I had a strong initial sense of much of what I wanted to highlight and discuss in that talk, I tried as always to remain open to things I might find or ideas I might come to in the process of planning and writing the lecture. For example, I knew I wanted Du Bois’s responses to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to be my focal moment for him, but in the process of researching that section really read in full his 1930 address to the Searles High School (Great Barrington, MA) alumni gathering for the first time. Du Bois had grown up in Great Barrington, and was very fond of its Housatonic River, which by this time was nearly abandoned and dangerously polluted. Du Bois used the 1930 address to make the case for cleaning up and reclaiming the river, but also—as the speech’s stunning last few paragraphs exemplify—to make a broader case about the role and importance of rivers in American communities. I don’t think we can read his last sentence—“And so I have ventured to call the attention of the graduates of the Searles High school this bit of philosophy of living in this valley, urging that we should rescue the Housatonic and clean it as we have never in all the years thought before of cleaning it, and seek to restore its ancient beauty; making it the center of a town, of a valley, and perhaps—who knows?—of a new measure of civilized life”—and not think about what he and his peers were hoping to accomplish in the Harlem Renaissance, and what we desperately need in 2017 America as well.
Du Bois’s speech was also deeply concerned with another topic to which I tried to connect my BOLLI lecture: the sometimes tenuous, almost always fraught, and always always vital links between a place and its histories. Thinking of my audience of Walthamites, I decided to start the talk by highlighting my own evolving understanding of my hometown (for the last 4.5 years), using in particular an interesting sign that greets drivers as they enter the city on a few different main roads: “Welcome to Waltham: America’s History is Our History.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that, as the posts in this January 2015 series sought to highlight. But the sign isn’t the city’s history itself, of course—it’s a representation of, a reflection on, perhaps most exactly an argument about, that history, and thus tells us as much about the present as it does about the past. The same could be said about the Harlem Renaissance’s engagements with African American, African, and American history, of course—and, for that matter, about my lecture’s engagements with all those questions. I won’t pretend that I provided answers to any of those complex issues in the talk, but it was fun to think in these ways about the city that I, these audience members, and BOLLI share.
Last event recap tomorrow,
PS. Events or experiences you’d highlight? I’d love to hear about them!