Tonight I attended a wonderful event conceived and organized by Vivian May, the current Director SU Humanities Center, along with her capable staff. Committed to using the Center’s space and funding lines not only to create research space but also to provide opportunities for Humanities faculty dialogue and community-building, Vivian brought together the three, current HC faculty fellows to speak about their research: Steve Parks from the Writing Program, Dana Spiotta from English, and Dawn Dow from sociology.
Steve spoke with passion and conviction about the “Feds” or the federation of working class writing groups that have been active in England since the 1970s. Constituted under the loathsome class politics of the mid-1970s through Thatcherism, Steve depicts these writing collectives as material means for gathering as a class, for writing into an identity that can anchor political activism, and as a material archive of an immense and precious labor history represented in the specific writings, a labor history that spans the 1890s (when boat laborers used wooden oars on the Thames) to the Burger King clerks of the early 21st century.
Dawn’s passion was not dampened by her scholar’s use and depiction of sociological methods. Her research on middle class African American mothers in the San Francisco Bay area examines how these women express and navigate concern for the particular vulnerability of their sons. Finessing a dizzying array of variables, Dawn’s research hammered home the fact that economic stability can buy many many things, but it cannot buy a body out of our country’s toxic racial economy. She shared with us a slice of the options drawn upon by these mothers, including creating enclaves of safety, exposing their sons to a range of experiences of ‘blackness’ so that they can navigate different social spaces with ease, and role-playing scenarios with their sons in order to prompt them to think about predatory child molesters and police officers, both, as potential threats.
Dana is a novelist who found herself drawn to the story of Glenn Ford, an African American man wrongly convicted of murder in 1984 and who thus spent 29 years in solitary confinement on death row. Dana spoke about the porosity between fiction and non-fiction, and yet how the two genres inhere different needs and different constraints. She spoke to the growing awareness of the anchoring power of ‘fact’ and the need to attend carefully to moments when she was imagining or feeling her way into Mr. Ford’s story. Though Dana typically considers fiction a matter of tapping into and expressing consciousness, she said she found herself honing what she could learn and verify about Ford’s physical body–what it endured, what it was exposed to, and how it reacted over the more than 10,000 days that it lived without human touch or companionship.
I probably harbor the most envy for Steve’s research, because I find it fascinating to track community formation and empowerment through the practice of writing physically alongside one another, and I find his dedication to trying to fund and build an archive of the Feds’ million-odd publications inspiring as both activism and the preservation of counter-history. That said, all three presentations–and perhaps the constellation of all three in this single evening–really has me thinking about the different scales and forms of precarity, from an externally imposed class prejudice that impacts how children are (not) educated, to the double-edged precarity of racism that is both fought off and yet also instilled in young men through stories of preparation and warning, and finally the precarity of a single body literally caged inside a state-run fortress that was indifferent to compassion and arrogant about its grasp of ‘justice.’
Thanks, Vivian–and the HC, and SU. That was grand.