The audience overflowed the Nasher Museum's auditorium at a recent screening of The New Black, a film produced by former Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellow Yvonne Welbon. The film, directed by Yoruba Richen, explores the ambivalent reactions of African Americans to the LGBTQ community's civil rights campaign and the marriage equality movement.
A panel discussion moderated by MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry followed the screening. Welbon was joined on stage by Mark Anthony Neal, professor in Duke's Department of African and African American Studies, black feminist writer Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and North Carolina State history professor Blair Kelley.
According to a Durham Herald-Sun article by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan, the film begins with the false notion that "African-American voters were the reason same-sex marriage was defeated in California" and then considers their "definitive impact on the passing of same-sex marriage in Maryland in 2012."
"The panelists," Vaughan writes, "discussed the film and the aspect of 'otherness' for LGBT and also for all African-Americans in the wake of no indictments in the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, by police officers."
Vaughan notes that Welbon and Richen first met in Durham, at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The New Black was an outgrowth of that meeting. Their film has gone on to receive numerous awards on the film festival circuit.
The December 3 screening was the final event of the semester-long series "Queering Duke History."
Yvonne Welbon, a Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellow last year, will return to Duke in December to screen her latest project, The New Black. The film, directed by Yoruba Richen, explores the African-American community's reaction to gay rights and, in particular, the push for marriage equality. Welbon is the film's producer.
The screening well be followed by a panel discussion.
Melissa Harris-Perry, Moderator (MSNBC & Wake Forest University faculty)
Mark Anthony Neal (Duke University)
Blair Kelley (NC State University)
Alexis Pauline Gumbs (independant scholar, poet, and queer black troublemaker)
The event will take place on December 3, 2014 at 6pm in the Nasher Museum Auditorium.
In her residence at Duke, Welbon's project was to analyze, evaluate, record, catalog, document and find a safe and publicly accessible home for her Sisters in Cinema archive. Collected over two decades, the archive is among the largest collections of African American women’s media production in the United States.
Visiting Faculty Fellow Yvonne Welbon has been nominated for the 45th NAACP Image Awards for her role as producer of "The New Black," a documentary that tells the story of how the African-American community is grappling with gay rights ssue of gay rights in light of the recent gay marriage movement and the fight over civil rights. The film documents activists, families and clergy on both sides of the campaignto legalize gay marriage and examines homophobia in the black church, revealing Christian right-wing strategies to exploit the phenomenon to pursue an anti-gay political agenda. The New Black takes viewers into the pews, onto the streets and provides a seat at thekitchen table to tell the story of the fight to win marriageequality in Maryland while charting the evolution of this divisive issue within the black community. The awards ceremonies will be held February 21 and 22.
The NAACP Image Awards celebrates the outstanding achievements and performances of people of color in the arts (television, recording, literature, motion picture and writing & directing), as well as those individuals or groups who promote social justice through their creative endeavors.
Visiting Faculty Fellow Pierce Salguero will be one of two speakers at this event on Monday, December 9, 4:00 - 5:20 p.m., 240 Franklin Center (Erwin Road at Trent Drive).
Professor Salguero will talk on "Buddhist Medicine in Medieval China."
The second speaker is Pamela Winfield, Assistant Professor at Elon University, who will speak on "Religion and Healing in Premodern Japan."
This event is sponsored by the Triangle China Forum. For more information, contact Carlos Rojas (firstname.lastname@example.org).
When you hear that Brain Awareness Week begins this Saturday, March 2, you may think that means there is going to be lots of complicated scientific and medical information coming to the local news. And there will be scientific and medical information coming your way. But the coordinated efforts by scientists, teachers, students and service organizations are open to the public, and welcome audiences of any age and level of expertise. Several of the events will be held in locations around Durham, including a talk by Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellow Ralph James Savarese on "Poetic Potential in Autism." Come to Fullsteam Brewery on Tuesday, March 5 at 7 p.m. for this fascinating look at neurodiversity. And check out the other events, too.
During Science Week on WUNC's "The State of Things" a team of faculty from Duke and other universities discussed empathy in its various forms (cognitive, motor, and emotional) as it relates to people with autism, as well as to sociopaths. Ralph James Savarese, Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor of English at Grinnell College, brings both a literary and very personal perspective to the conversation with others who specialize in psychology and neuroscience, philosophy, neurobiology, and law. Listen to the conversation here. Professor Savarese joins the conversation at about 26 minutes.
Ralph James Savarese, Ph.D., launched the 2012-13 "Neurodiversity and the Humanities" Series with a presentation titled "What Some Autistics Can Teach Us About Poetry: A Neurocosmopolitan Approach." Professor Savarese is a Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellow.
Why is an English professor working with brain scientists? To change our understanding of the interaction between autism and poetry.
Autism spectrum disorder is often characterized by an inability to comprehend figurative language, especially metaphors. But poet Ralph Savarese, an associate professor of English at Grinnell College currently doing a residency with the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences as a Mellon Humanities Writ Large Fellow, has found the exact opposite to be true in his interactions with people who have autism.
You can read more about his talk on the Duke Research Blog.
For more information about the DIBS/FHI Neurohumanities Research Group, click here.
Adeline Koh, a Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellow, is currently designing Trading Races with GreaterThanGames lab. Trading Races is an elaborate historical role-playing game designed to teach race consciousness in an undergraduate course. The game is set at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus in April 2003, two months before the Supreme Court landmark decisions on affirmative action. Players take on the roles of multi-ethnic and multi-national members of an imaginary Michigan Student Assembly, and present speeches on race related issues based upon their characters’ social and political orientation in gameplay. By asking players to assume the ideological worldview of people different from themselves, the game encourages players to “trade races” intellectually and emotionally. An electronic simulation of this paper-based game is also being planned. Koh is currently looking for volunteers to help playtest the game starting October 2012. To find out more, visit the website: http://tradingraces.adelinekoh.org/
It’s Sharon Raynor again. I spent my 39th birthday weekend with more than 62,000 Vietnam Veterans and their families at the Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Celebration held on March 31, 2012. Nearly 50 years ago, approximately 216,000 men and women left North Carolina to serve in Vietnam. About 1,600 of them didn't make it home. The ones who did make it back, including my father, never received a proper homecoming. The time had finally come to thank them for their service and sacrifice. (For some background, see my earlier posts about my oral history project, "Breaking the Silence: The Unspoken Brotherhood of Vietnam Veterans.")
As I was driving from Duke to Charlotte on Thursday, I heard a radio broadcaster say that the final preparations for the celebration were underway. He asked motorists traveling through Charlotte on I-85 North to move aside if they saw the motorcycle and police motorcade that would be escorting a replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall (the Traveling Wall) to the Speedway. I couldn't help but feel a bit sentimental — the big day for Vietnam veterans like my father was almost here at last.
For months now, this event, said to be the largest gathering of Vietnam Veterans ever assembled in the state of North Carolina, has been the topic of conversation in our homes and at the Raleigh Veterans Outreach Center. The ten-day Heroes Homecoming for Vietnam Veterans hosted by the city of Fayetteville in November 2011 built anticipation for the much larger gathering in Charlotte. My family and the veterans I work with reserved tickets long ago and started making plans. On Friday, as veterans from out of town were making their way to their hotels in Charlotte, we were packing our cameras, beverages, snacks and lawn chairs for what was going to be a memorable and emotional day.
We started our Saturday at 6 am, determined to make our way through all the expected traffic and get to the Speedway. After a quick bite to eat, we grabbed our umbrellas and bottles of water and stepped out into the pouring rain. It was 7:30 when we parked at the Speedway. The gates were opening at 9am for festivities that started at 11 am. My father reminded me that today's weather was nothing compared to being in Vietnam during monsoon season, when it could rain for up to three months at a time.
As we entered, chatting with the other early risers, a huge display screen showed the young faces of men who served. We made our way around the Speedway and saw helicopters, military weaponry and model cars on display. Rolling Thunder opened the ceremony with a grand entrance and local motorcycle clubs were a conspicuous presence, as well. VA services were present to assist veterans and their families and the Montagnard were there, as well. A wreath was laid at The Wall for all those who perished in the war. There was a military flyby that astonished the crowd and there were paratroopers, who received thundering applause. The musical performances by the 82nd Airborne Choir and George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelics had the crowd singing and dancing.
Amidst all the ceremony and display, there was a tremendous outpouring of community spirit. The sentiment of the day, shared with friends, acquaintances, and strangers, passed between double amputees who made the trip alone and veterans who came by the bus load, was "Welcome Home, Brother. I'm glad you made it back." Veterans exchanged handshakes, hugs, laughs and tears; they were welcomed home by strangers and by cards from children across the nation. Families everywhere watched as their veterans were reunited with long-lost friends and comrades. Sprinkled throughout the crowd were familiar faces from the Raleigh Veterans Center.
For many years, my father longed to find a veteran he served with or who at least served in some of the same locations. Luckily for him, a man named Jimmy drove by on a scooter with a sign that read, “Bearcat 1968, 5th BN 41st Artillery Brigade.” The two of them sat and talked, sharing memories of Bearcat and looking at old photos of young soldiers. It was a highlight of the day.
The event was a wonderful tribute to those who sacrificed so much for our freedoms. Sadly, late in the day, it was also the scene of a tragic accident. As festivities ended and people were leaving, three motorcyclists were involved in a collision on the Speedway and two of them were killed. One was an Air Force Vietnam Veteran. It was an extra note of sadness on a day that was already too full of reminders of how precious and short life can be.
For us, the gathering continued at the restaurant where we had Sunday breakfast, as veterans found each other for more conversation. There were stories about growing up on a farm in Oxford, NC before leaving for the war. Two men who had served in the same unit in Vietnam were reunited after 40 years. We made our way out after many rounds of hugs and handshakes, only to run into more veterans outside the restaurant.
The weekend was more than just a long-overdue homecoming for Vietnam Veterans, it was a time of remembrance and healing for everyone whose lives have been touched and affected by war.
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“We can no longer have this old Marxist confidence that we know
where history is going. History is going into an abyss.”
- Slavoj Žižek
We may, perhaps, map the abyss. And we may, perhaps again, be consoled or inspired or transported by the mapping. This is Jason Cohen, Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellow, and that’s what I discovered a few weekends ago at a workshop sponsored by Duke’s BorderWork(s) Lab, and what I’m here to dilate.
The workshop was called “Cartography and Creativity in the Age of Global Empires.” Its participants came together to consider maps and counter-maps, narratives and counter-narratives, and the visual cultures of cartography. I won’t try to summarize the full day’s events - that would lead me, like the scholar whose attention is fixed on successively smaller details in Borges’s spectacular map, to unending meditation - but I will offer a few reflections on some of the shinier facets of the day’s discussions.
In the first panel of the day, Pedro Lasch, John Pickles, and Ben Schmidt touched on the broad issue of national borders and security, often in tightly connected and provocative ways. Lasch has regularly used the border as a site of artistic inspiration, and the piece “Latino/a America” (below) interrogates not only the northern bias that the US assumes with its appropriation of “America” as a national adjective, but also the very country, region, and state borders (and their negotiation) the piece intentionally obscures.
Pickles’ focus was on the border as well. His discussion of Eurozone protections was frankly intimidating for the scope of surveillance, security, and containment measures it revealed — FRONTEX, project Sea Horse, the Schengen economic area and other programs that span the continent. The most shocking detail, at least for me, was the extension of the “border” to include vulnerabilities that are far from any legally defined border and tied instead to the boundary between desirable and undesirable sources of social change. The “border,” according to this mindset, encompasses the remote routes, locations, and economies of perceived security risks.
In its historical vein Schmidt’s fascinating paper, “Exotic Pleasures,” traced the images and implications of cartographic exoticism. His particular focus was the allegorical cartouche image of “America” as a woman (or man) protected by a parasol. Like Pickles and Lasch, Schmidt was also interested in tracking the movements of these material and imagined objects across national, affective, and conceptual lines.
Katherine Harmon, Neil Safier, and Dennis Wood anchored the day’s second panel. Harmon’s presentation, I think, gave us all a sense of the vast range and appeal that map art continues to generate in the US and globally. I laughed, for instance, when she told us “It never takes long to get to the moon” with Geogoo (see image below), a playful website that riffs on the superabundance of map tags, geo-referenced information bites, and the proliferation of maps themselves across contexts.
Safier asked us to rethink the sertão – the Brazilian equivalent of frontier / wilderness / backwoods – and, along with it, the judgments that enter into determining the extents of civilization, whether through colonial or indigenous perceptions.
Wood’s frame of reference — perceptions of the riparian map of the Cuyahoga River as it flows through Cleveland to Lake Erie — was whimsical but acute. His map contained his own history. Its site of recollection was his childhood home in a now dilapidated housing project called Lakeview Terrace during the 1960s and 70s, when the Cuyahoga captured national attention by catching fire a few times and went from being “the crooked river” to being “the burning river.” In a city that answered NYC’s “apple” campaign with the questionable reply, “Cleveland’s a plum,” the name stuck as a point of odd pride — as late as 1999, I played ultimate frisbee on a Cleveland-based team called “Burning River.”
From nostalgia to creativity to historical recollection, the panel explored ways of recapturing maps of the imagination. I came away with a refined understanding of the relationship between the material map and its reconstructions in the mind of an individual or culture. Sometimes, it seems, the contours of cartographic recollection are the most direct way to access the past.
The day’s final session focused on John Selden’s Map of China at the Bodleian library, which Robert Batchelor came to discuss. Batchelor brought the map from obscurity to recognition in early 2008 with the assistance of Bodleian librarian David Helliwell. In his talk, Batchelor laid out his analytic framework for reading the map, comparing his approach with the Chinese encyclopedic tradition. He followed with contextual notes on trade, ecological motifs, cartographic errors and revisions, and most notably, the map’s singular inclusion of trade routes on its sea surfaces.
I was one of three respondents to Batchelor’s presentation. My comments focused on the international context in which the map circulated — I talked about commodity exchange, sovereign vectors on the sea, the power projected across maritime spaces, and the relationship between central administration and coastal merchants. Jonathan Ocko’s response offered more focused reflections on Chinese history and culture. Victoria Szabo’s comments on the digital life of the map, however, were the most provocative. She helped us to think about how we interact with the map in real time and about the limitations, potentials, and challenges of the digital-humanist paths we were following in our intellectual pursuit of the map.
It was the Greek debt crisis, seen as symptomatic of a general breakdown of neoliberalism, that gave rise to the characteristically drastic comment from Slavoj Žižek quoted at the top of the post. His bleak certainty about the present state of liberal economic and political institutions is, perhaps, understandable. But by offering the abyss without contemplating its shapes or contours, he relinquishes the territory of the counter-map, counter-narrative, and micro-history. Perhaps, our colloquium suggested, even an abyss can be mapped according to contexts supplied by art, history, and experience. Žižek’s conclusion may be inescapable but in the absence of clearly legible cartography, charting its implications could be an unending proposition. To move across spatial metaphors, that position might avoid a check, but whether it can escape checkmate remains obscure in a game already being played.
Who was Sutton E. Griggs and what are his novels about? This is the question that has brought me to Duke University. I am Tess Chakkalakal, a Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor of Africana Studies and English at Bowdoin College.
Trained as a Baptist minister and theologian in Texas and Virginia, Griggs began his literary career as a writer of political fiction in 1899 with his most famous novel, Imperium in Imperio. This novel provides a singular southern black perspective on politics during and immediately after Reconstruction, illuminating a particularly dark moment in US history. In his subsequent novels, Griggs examines the ways in which “race” – by which he means the inferior economic and social conditions of former slaves and their descendants – affects the personal and public lives of his characters.
Griggs was one of the most prolific black authors of the twentieth century. Why is so little known about his life and work? Unlike contemporary white authors, Griggs’s literary archive was not preserved. We have only his five novels and some pamphlets, most of which were self-published. My challenge is to piece together the life story that gives context to these works. Only then will it be possible to understand Grigg's role in the development of African American literature.
The first step is building an accessible archive. Most of his novels and pamphlets are available only in first editions. His essays are scattered among now obscure and hard-to-find black newspapers and there are few remaining items of his correspondence. My work is to collect and digitize the available material so that scholars like myself will be able to access it more easily. In order to do this I have been working with Will Shaw, the Digital Humanities Technology Consultant who is also funded by Humanities Writ Large.
Collaborating and sharing ideas does not come naturally to the humanities. For too long scholars have preferred to work in isolation, jealously guarding the ideas they derive through extensive solitary reading until those ideas can be published in book or article form. This project cannot be done in isolation and demands a new model. As I have worked to collect Griggs’s writings, speeches, and sermons, I have consulted with scholars in Austria, Italy, and across the United States. By pooling our knowledge of this obscure and neglected author, we hope to develop a fuller picture of early twentieth-century African American book production and dissemination — passionate intellectual labor that was undertaken in spite of political violence and repression only to be discarded by the broader society.
In our attempt to construct the context for Griggs’s writings we have been guided by what Adolph Reed termed a “generativist” approach to political thought, which rests on two premises regarding the nature of political discourses and ideologies:
According to this approach, it is not enough to merely note that Griggs and the black writers who preceded and followed him are linked by their shared opposition to white supremacy. It is essential to attend to the contestations within and between organizations, to differences of opinion about the best way to dismantle Jim Crow and about the kind of world that should emerge in its wake. Griggs worked closely with other African American writers and thinkers of his time. The problem is that without access to his correspondence, it is virtually impossible to reconstruct the nature of his conversations with others.
During my time at Duke, I came across a letter from Griggs to the African American historian, Carter G. Woodson. I found the letter in the Carter G. Woodson Papers on microfilm at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is one of the few documents that contain Griggs’s signature and personal letterhead. The document includes several quotes from his own writings and designates his role as founder of a small publishing company, his second, called the National Welfare League.
At first glance the letter seems to contain little information, but after sharing it with my collaborators we realized that it counts as a find because it reveals quite clearly Griggs’s mindset about the purpose of scholarship, i.e., building racial self-respect and burnishing the prestige of the race: pure vindicationalism. There is value in the signature, as well. It might be transferred to the title page of future reissues of his novels as a trace of the living hand of an important author who was almost allowed to vanish.
Though I found the letter, it was only after consulting with my colleagues that I could actually read the information it contained. Reading together, it turns out, might just be a good deal more productive than reading alone. This sort of collaborative reading and interpretation is precisely what the Humanities Writ Large initiative enables.
This is Sharon Raynor again, picking up from my earlier post about my oral history project, "Breaking the Silence: The Unspoken Brotherhood of Vietnam Veterans." When I found out that I would be spending a semester at Duke as a Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellow, I knew it would be a wonderful opportunity to bring some veterans to Duke as well. That's what happened on February 21, when some of the men involved in my project came to campus for a recording session in the History Department and a meeting with both Continuing Education and undergraduate students in the Ethnographic Writing: Veterans Oral History Project class in Documentary Studies. One of the visitors was the man who inspired the project — my father, Louis Raynor.
"He who is a friend, is a friend always, and brothers are born for adversity."
- Proverbs 17:7
From left to right: Derrick Rowsey, Robert Jones, Ronnie Stokes, John Nesbitt, Ralph Shaw, Robert L. Jones, Jr., John Barnes, Louis Raynor, Charles Helbig
For most of the group it was their first visit to campus as anything but a patient at Duke Medical Center or the Durham VA Hospital. The exception was Robert Jones, Jr., who used to be a Duke bus driver. However, since the beginning of the oral history project, the group has visited many other colleges and universities, including East Carolina University, Mitchell Community College, North Carolina State University, Johnson C. Smith University, and Fayetteville State University. They've traveled to communities around the state to speak at high schools, churches, and libraries, as well. The purpose of the project is not only to educate the public about the Vietnam War and its impact on the local men who fought it but also to help students understand the general importance of documenting life experiences.
The men were warmly greeted by Ray Gavins, Professor of History, and after some introductions they began to talk about their time in Vietnam. They talked about when and where they served, the men they served with, their combat experiences and the things they had to do in order to survive. There was a great deal to say and sometimes several stories were heard at once.
Ronnie Stokes remembered being trained at Ft. Bragg in 1968 and arriving in Vietnam on July 3, 1969. His first impression was of unbelievable heat and what he believed was the smell of urine. He said, "I realized then that I had been sent to Vietnam to die and I was determined not to die there. ... I try not to focus on the gruesome stories of war. It's hard to think about the fact that you were standing beside a friend and in the next moment all that is left of him is his smoking boots because he was just killed."
The veterans also spoke about their daily struggle, learning to deal with what happened during their time in Vietnam and with the attitudes the encountered back home. Army Veteran Robert Jones said, "It's not fair that soldiers came home and were called baby killers. I don't know if I ever killed a child, but when everybody is fighting, everything is chaos and we had to fight if we wanted to survive."
After the recording session, and after lunch at the Backyard BBQ Pit, we returned to the Center for Documentary Studies to view the photography exhibit, "When Janey Comes Marching Home" by Sascha Pflaeging and Laura Browder. Then we joined Michelle Lanier's Veterans History Project class, where students were able to ask questions about the veterans' lives. We also had a general discussion of oral history and of the importance of documenting the wartime experiences of combat veterans and understanding their struggles with PTSD.
When students asked about the difference between going to war with a unit and going as an individual unattached to a unit, there were various responses. According to Marine Veteran Robert L. Jones, "Even though I trained with a unit, a half dozen guys or so, in Parris Island, South Carolina, I did not want to get too close to them." Army Veteran Louis Raynor agreed, "I simply did not want to know names or faces." Platoon Sergeant and Medic Derrick Rowsey said, "I brought everyone back in my unit, whether they were wounded or not." Drill Sergeant John Nesbit told his unit, "The training I'm giving you, I hope you never have to use, but if you do then you will know what to do."
Another question was about whether the veterans experienced any internal conflicts because of the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Army Veteran Ronnie Stokes responded, "It was difficult to be in the middle of the jungle in the triple dark of night and hear James Brown music and messages directed at black soldiers about fighting in Vietnam for rights that they did not have at home. We could not let those messages affect us if we wanted to survive and return home."
The class ended with students and veterans shaking hands and enjoying a few moments of friendly conversation. Connecting with students here at Duke was another remarkable moment of healing and recovery for our local war veterans.
"Words have weight – you bear with me the weight of my words,
suffering whatever pain this burden causes you – in silence. I bow to you."
- bell hooks, Remembered Rapture
Class visit (click to go to the next image)
"If there is to be trouble, let it be in my day so that my child may have peace."
- Thomas Paine
I'm Sharon Raynor, one of the Humanities Writ Large initiative's three Visiting Faculty Fellows this spring. Since 1999, I have been documenting the lives of Vietnam veterans in rural areas of eastern North Carolina, from Raleigh/Durham through Goldsboro, Greenville, Wilson and Clinton. Their narratives are an integral part of "Breaking the Silence: The Unspoken Brotherhood of Vietnam Veterans," an oral history project initially funded by the North Carolina Humanities Council. It includes interviews, documentary photography, site-specific installations, and academic papers and conferences. There have also been community forums and presentations where the veterans have been able to tell their own stories. They are products of the same rural Carolina milieu, with a shared experience of its racial divide, and together they endured war and trauma. They have much in common.
"There is a void...an absence...a silence. There were no voices. There were no structures
of feeling or support. So I went in search of voices-in search of community."
- Charlotte Pierce-Baker, Surviving the Silence
"Breaking the Silence" reveals the experiences of men who fought in Vietnam and lived to return to the same small, rural communities they had left, though they came back as very different men. They tell of being drafted or enlisting for service, of leaving homes and segregated communities for integrated battalions, of fighting for civil liberties, freedoms and racial justice abroad while the Civil Rights Movement was proceeding at home. They tell of violent loss and disappointing homecomings followed by decades of silence, of personal re-adjustments and survival. Most of the participants have been African American, but either way they were among the first to serve in fully integrated troop battalions in a combat zone, so their stories have special significance.
This project has been ongoing for thirteen years because it tapped a community that was also in search of something, a lost brotherhood that had been left behind in Vietnam. Most of the veterans participating today have been involved since the beginning. The success of the project is measured not only by the stories recorded but even more by improvements in the quality of life of these veterans and their families. They are forever united by the silence of war...
"What I want for my daughter, she shall never have: A world without war, a life untouched by the bigotry
and hate, a mind free to carry a thought up to the light of pure possibility."
- W.D. Ehrhart, From "Why I Don't Mind"
Perhaps my work with Vietnam Veterans was predestined. The last American troops withdrew from Vietnam on March 29, 1973; I was born the very next day (which is now the official "Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day"). As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I was constantly seeking answers to questions about the war and the profound silence that ensued and engulfed our family. This oral history project emerged from my personal journey. I learned from my father that a child should always be willing to listen even if nothing is being said. Silence can be very profound; even silence has its own story to tell.
My father's silence was illustrated by his diary and by photographs that he brought home from the war. Hidden away from prying eyes, these documents only told part of my father's story, so I went in search of the rest. I was intrigued about how this culture of Vietnam veterans somehow provided comfort for my father that he couldn't get from his family or from me, his own daughter. Then, just two years after the project started, while waiting through my father's silence, I experienced a personal trauma of my own and was diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I did not completely understand what it meant for a combat veteran to live with PTSD until I experienced my own trauma. We had all become mirror images of the other as we tried to reconcile our fragmented lives.
While journeying through my own silence, I continued to encourage the veterans to break theirs. When I could not find the words to tell my own story, I could better hear their voices. As the oral history progressed and the narratives continued to grow and develop, I found answers to my questions about war and silence. While I learned to listen to the silences of their stories, I also learned how to hear the story that my own silence tells.
"War reduces everything to silence. Every soldier's grave a place too loud for sleep."
- E. Ethelbert Miller, "First Poem"
And now my own story has brought me to Duke University as a Humanities Writ Large Faculty Fellow. I arrived on a rainy January day, but the welcome has been warm from the moment Floyd Borden, the History Department Business Manager, showed me to my office space. Historians Bill Chafe, Ray Gavins and Adrian Lentz-Smith shared coffee and conversation, Lee Baker and Chandra Guinn offered generous advice and a welcoming smile. At the Center for Documentary Studies, I was immediately invited into a faculty meeting by Charlie Thompson. The center's director, Tom Rankin, and faculty members Michelle Lanier, Barbara Lau and Duncan Murrell spoke with me about the fascinating work taking place there and about the enticing prospect of a Veterans Project at Duke.
I knew that I had found a wonderful home for my scholarship and a fine place for the veterans to visit and be heard. More on that next time.
First, a quick introduction. Greetings, I am Jason Cohen, a visiting faculty fellow in the first cohort of Duke’s new Humanities Writ Large initiative. My work at Duke examines how early modern cartography reveals or obscures the social, commercial, legal, and historical premises undergirding the sovereignty of the seas. In the first month of the HWL faculty fellowship, my project has moved in a direction I could not have anticipated because of the archival strength at Duke in New World cartography and environmental studies. Given these fantastic holdings and resources, my focus has shifted away from an original intention to investigate Mediterranean and Islamic connections with early modern Europe. Ah, the pursuit of the archive’s riches and vagaries – I am happily traveling under that spell once more. But let me track backwards a little to give some context for this project. Of the three faculty brought to Duke for this year’s semester-long version of the fellowship, I am the only one striking out for essentially new territories. Obviously, Sharon and Tess were far more prudent in their projects, but I am incredibly excited by the possibilities this project holds for my research on emerging international law as well as for the classroom and research implications of digital humanities instruments for the study of Renaissance literature and culture.
The unexpected turn in my approach to this project has already had significant implications for this work, even though I have been building on research I’ve been developing over the last year. I came to my Duke proposal, “Mapping Sovereignties of the Sea,” through an interest in Francis Bacon’s strange and ineffectual intervention in British policy on the law of nations, circa 1621. His white paper, titled Aphorismi de jure gentium maiore sive de fontibus justiciae et juris [Aphorisms on the Greater Laws of Nations], attempted to lay out a taxonomy of legal decision and jurisdiction for new world encounters. I call it strange not only because it evinces a particularly Baconian style of legal policy written in aphoristic fragments, but also because of its timing. It was certainly written after his indictment for bribery in 1620 and still more than ten years prior to the publication of John Selden’s seminal Mare Clausum. (Pure conjecture here: given that Selden prepared his document c. 1619, and that Selden served as Bacon’s amanuensis, perhaps Bacon saw the Mare Clausum in draft? Impossible to determine.) In any case, Bacon’s untimely work had a very quiet afterlife: it was never mentioned in surviving correspondence or referred to in later policy tracts; finally it was lost until 1980, when Mark Neustadt discovered a fair-hand copy buried in the library of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. So, I came to this project on the law of nations and the sovereignty of the seas by way of thinking about what kinds of hypothetical situations Bacon’s aphorisms were attempting to imagine, and for what reasons.
The materials I’ve discovered with the help of Duke’s fine librarians and my excellent colleagues have been remarkable. I expected the ethnographic, nautical, and natural components of early maps, but the legal materials directly inscribed on maps produced during the 1650s and later are surprising, at least for me as a scholar of the earlier seventeenth century. The remarkable function these maps assume as instruments of statecraft complements the exacting relationship they describe between the commercial and legal worlds of these growing empires. [Note the description in the cartouche of fishery limits as well as national interests on the map above.] One recognition I have made recently involves the function of inquiring about longitude among captains and officers: because they were so literally lost at sea so much of the time, the verbal and mathematical calculus involving longitudinal ranges in which two ships met provided them with a platform for discussions that implied competition and negotiation without ever having to mention the language of nation or sovereignty. In this way, I think, the formal mechanisms of nautical sovereignty we might find in court documents is enriched by a proto-Lacanian discourse about the sea as Imaginaire, in which each ship projects itself as an image whose location and signification remains as yet under-determined. Anyway, that’s my working hypothesis for the day.
One final note before I pass the mic: this project is working toward the development of an interactive and dynamic set of digitized maps that will feature layers, annotations, historical and spatial data, and perhaps a timeline. My interest in making this instrument accessible to undergraduate research as well as advanced scholarship remains one of my core commitments as a teacher and scholar of early modern literature, and for that reason I aim to make it interactive in ways that encourage others to use these maps, mark them up, export the markups, or import their own data onto the map interface. I am driven by a model of peer-use and -access involving undergraduate research, a model I began working with in another project, Apollon eJournal, online at www.apollonejournal.org. Let me know if you or your students would like to be involved, or if you can think of better ways to promote these kinds of collaborative endeavors to generate and disseminate knowledge.
I look forward to more reports on the progress of this project in the coming months. Ciao!