Grant Farred Lecture: “Negro” and The American Condition

A few weeks ago visiting professor Grant Farred provided a lively night of academic quandaries and theoretical debate during his lecture on the political, philosophical, and linguistic use of the word Negro and its connection to American race relations in the works of James Baldwin.  Dr. Farred is a professor of literature, Africana studies, and cultural studies at Cornell University.  He is also an active author and recent books include Midfielder’s Moment: Coloured Literature and Culture in Contemporary South Africa, What’s My Name?  Black Vernacular Intellectuals, Phantom Calls: Race and the Globalization of the NBA, and Long Distance Love: A Passion for Football.  Dr. Farred has also served as an editor on various essay collections focusing on the Caribbean intellectual, Post-Apartheid in South Africa, and C.L.R. James, marking him as a leading scholar in diverse literary and cultural studies.

Dr. Farred began his enthusiastic talk with a close reading of James Baldwin and his idea that the Negro is the only real American.  For Baldwin, the term Negro is the condition of America, because it joins the oppressor and the oppressed.  In America the Negro is thought of as the other.  But the other only exists in relation to the dominant party, or white Americans.  The other, or Negro, is then a neighbor, distant but near to Whites at the same time, and not actually an other at all.  If the Negro is the same as the White community, then the Negro is the narrative of America, the story of the oppressors and the oppressed.   The Negro and White America are also forever joined together as the condition of America, because the United States can never return to a time before America was founded on the atrocity of slavery.  The Negro is America, as well as its past and future.

Dr. Farred points out that Baldwin overlooks the experience of the Native American in his discussion of the Negro as the condition of America.  Although this is a problem, because the Native American is othered in White culture, in reality Native Americans are the indigenous people of America and are anything but an other.   Therefore, like the Negro, the Native American is the condition of America and is not distant but is near to White America.  In the lecture Dr. Farred explains how the Negro can be then used as a term for all groups of people that have been oppressed and othered in the United States, including African Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and any other community.  The Negro is the Condition of America and all who have been oppressed, and all who have been oppressors.

As the talk concluded and Dr. Farred opened up the room to questions, he challenged assumptions regarding the current role of the other in America culture.  When asked about Rachel Dolezal, Dr. Farred stated that the other always begins with exclusion and the assumption that the other is not the same as the dominant party.  By claiming that Dolezal does not know the African American experience, it is othering her and making the experience a combative game.  For Dr. Farred this is the problem of over representation and the idea that a person can only speak for their own gender, race, or class.  This creates experience as a combative game because people must one up each other in order to be considered other or oppressed in America.  Over representation just then further segregates and others people’s experiences.  Dr. Farred ends his answer by saying America needs to find a new way to express self and the other, and perhaps that way is through Baldwin’s use of the term Negro.

Dr. Farred is currently finishing a forthcoming book called Bodies in Motion, Bodies at Rest and last fall posted on University of Minnesota Press’ Blog regarding his complex relationship with the works of Martin Heidegger.

Wendy Walters Lecture: A Quickly Approaching Horizon

Wwaltersendy Walters’ writing is a gift to multiple communities all at once: hopeful writers and students, literature fans, environmental activists, and anyone attentive to the state of human rights in our world.  By this measure, this is writing that should concern just about everyone on Earth.  She is widely published as a poet, but her selections at this lecture leaned towards prosody.  Her style remained unmistakably poetic, however.  This literary design allows her to blend scientific facts with metaphor and storytelling, which brings a beauty and relatable quality to what would normally be dry historic data.  She begins with an ear-catching specific, then moves towards more general truths.  By giving a melodic energy to factual evidence, she manages to convey vital messages without ever being dull.  This is not only admirable but essential in this age of short attention spans, self-interest, and instant gratification, where capturing the attention of the upcoming generations seems to be simultaneously more difficult and more crucially needed.

Her first reading came from her essay “When the Sea Comes for Us” and focused on the delicate balance of coastal communities and the surrounding ocean levels.  Specifically, it centered around her home in New York City not far from the famous New York Harbor.  She explored marine areas geographically, listing particular areas by name and then detailing their historical role in the human-ocean relationship.  This highlighted how dependent the human race has always been on the sea, and how we have always come for it, usually to use it to our advantage.  She spoke of our building upward as an “impulse to climb” that had a clear double-meaning, representing our physical topography of taller and taller buildings that was designed by an “economy of space,” but also of our apparently inextinguishable desire to accumulate wealth and prestige both individually and collectively (Walters).  She compared skyscrapers to masts, something I have personally never considered, and this could be argued to exemplify the enduring nature of humanity’s false idea that we can claim or tame anything by merely building upon it, raising ourselves above it.  A sentiment from this piece that effectively introduced her next reading was that “true sea change” will leave no territory unaffected (Walters).  It’s not just about New York, it’s not just about America; this is an issue that concerns the entire planet.  All of the major civilizations in our history have depended on the various benefits of the ocean.  We have come for the sea, unwilling to admit to ourselves that the sea could, in turn, come for us.

walters 3     The next piece she read from was “You Are Pip.”  This was a much longer essay, which she hesitated to call an essay as it seems to bridge the spaces between poem, essay, and monologue.  Several in the audience said that they felt it was a performance piece after the reading, and I believe this came from the repetition of several lines such as the ever-present reminder that “you are Pip” as well as the subtle urgency of the writing.  This piece still deals with the unbreakable yet dangerous bond human beings have with the sea, but it is more deeply focused on human-to-human interaction, specifically interaction modified by racism.  Pip is a seemingly minor character of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a young African-American boy who works under the notorious Captain Ahab.  However, Walters shows that he holds an importance far greater than it first appears.  His character’s initial purpose seems to be comic relief, but that is cut short by his untimely drowning later in the novel.  This indicates a purposeful earnestness expressed by Melville when penning his unexpected demise.  Pip can, and perhaps should, be totally removed from the context of his tale and represent a bigger issue in our society, past and present.  Walters seems to think this is necessary, that we are all Pip: nervous yet in awe, humorous yet serious, corporeal yet fleeting.  Regardless of skin color, the work demonstrates that the tumultuous range of human emotion and the unpredictability of human experience are universal factors in our lives.

As the reading began to wind down, it became clear that another interpretation could be drawn: Pip could also be the sea.  Some lines that triggered this association were “you have died, not we have killed you”, “fears born from uncertainty”, and “may you never sacrifice yourself to progress (Walters).”  These thoughts can all be easily related to our relationship with the ocean.  Many people refuse to admit their part in the destruction of the marine ecosystem, certainly much of the population has fears of the ocean based on a lack of knowledge or uncertainty, and those who care about the sea of course wish that it walters 2would not become sacrificed to progress.  Now, if we are Pip, and Pip is the ocean, WE are the ocean.  Our tie to water is scientific, unavoidable, and unique.  The ocean sustains us, heals us, transports us, and amuses us.  Therefore, why should we not protect it as one of our own?  We are not just saving a remarkable, ancient world, but ourselves as well.  As Walters so eloquently put, the world will end just as it always was going to; what changes and what matters is the speed of that demise.


Looking at Faulkner Through Doorways with Amy Foley

Last week, as a part of the URI Department of English Graduate Student Colloquium Series, Amy Foley, a Ph.D. candidate in English, gave a fascinating talk entitled “’That Strange Threshold’: Faulkner’s Doorways to Being.” Her talk focused on the research she has done as part of her fulfillment of the fellowship she received by the Center for the Humanities.

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Amy’s admiring undergraduate and fellow graduate students, proud faculty, and loving family listened in anticipation as Professor Barber, in his usual compassionate manner, introduced his esteemed advisee Amy.

The first time I met Amy she was presenting at the 2014 URI Graduate Student Conference. I thought I could listen to her for days. Seeing her share her insights about Faulkner’s philosophy of built environments at the colloquium, I was again struck by the same welcoming tone, confidence, and melodious voice that makes her presentations enjoyably unique. When it was time to take questions from the audience, even the most mundane questions became compelling with her careful engagement and appreciation

amy 2Her equally accommodating work synthesizes eclectic philosophers, such as Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Gaston Bachelard, into a unifying theme of ontological existence and their relation to the doorways and thresholds within Faulkner’s writings. She questions the fine line between the door as the sanctuary, as well as the ostensibly sharp oppositions between the interior and exterior, culture and nature through the architectural structures.

Overall, Amy’s presentation and her fine work reveals her wisdom: she has the unique ability to listen to others—philosophers, writers, peers, and professors—taking their work and insights and expanding the conversation, applying her own critical view to create something truly captivating. We wish her the best as she continues to work on the rest of her dissertation and look forward to hearing more from her exciting project.