African American Studies Alumni Profile: Brandon Chapman ‘16

For the last 10 months, I’ve been working as a community organizer in Charleston and North Charleston. I work for the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM), which is a local nonprofit made up of 28 congregations and organizations in the area. We’re an interfaith organization and consists of Catholic parishes, Baptist and Methodist churches, as well as the synagogue and a mosque. We work together and are united in our pursuit for justice.

My job as an organizer is to build relationships with members of the community so that we can make systemic changes. We go through an annual process with three focus areas. First, we conduct house meetings throughout the area to listen to community problems. Members of the community share personal stories about how a community problem is affecting them. Then we vote on the top problem that emerged out of our house meetings. Secondly, we research the problem by meeting with experts to make sure we are finding best practices. Thirdly, we conduct an investment drive to ensure that we are financially stable. Using this process, CAJM has made some lasting changes in the community. Our work has resulted in two hundred extra pre-K slots added per year throughout the Charleston County School District and schools that now use programs to teach students conflict resolution. We have also worked with the four local police departments to implement an objective scoring tool in interactions with juveniles, and we’re currently pushing Charleston and North Charleston to audit the police force for racial bias.

I became interested in community organizing when I did my Capstone project for African American Studies. I researched the similarities and differences between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement. My research led me to focus on the role of the church in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly how the church served as the institution where leaders organized. I noticed that the church wasn’t functioning in the same way in today’s movements. As a part of my analysis, I researched Civil Rights leaders and their methods of organizing. Out of all of the leaders I researched, Ella Baker influenced me the most. Baker and her work with Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and her advice to the students who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) stuck out to me. Baker argued, “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” What she meant was that everyone has a place in organizations, and successful movements don’t need one leader telling them what steps they should take. It was this paper and research that encouraged me to look more into church-based community organizing.

Brandon Chapman is a community organizer for the Charleston Area Justice Ministry. He graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 with degrees in African American Studies and Political Science.

 

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Announcing the African American Studies Fall 2017 Film Festival

The African American Studies Fall 2017 Film Festival asks out loud how the US film industry has engaged with white liberal complicity in white supremacy over the past fifty years. We begin with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), which is too focused on self-congratulatory, white liberal glad-handing to realize how ignorant the white characters are to their own racist assumptions. To quote a line from James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, what the film’s writers fail to imagine is that “As the parents of a world-famous man [Sidney Poitier’s character], they [the black parents], indisputably, out-rank their [white liberal] hosts, and might very well feel that the far from galvanizing [white] fiancée is not worthy of their son.” In George Romero’s classic zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968), the specter of whites unable to believe in black heroism and magnanimity proves to be as dangerous as the zombies themselves. The racist views of the film’s white characters ultimately leads to the demise of the black hero, who is deemed essentially equivalent to the zombies he protects them from. This then begs the question, ‘who are the real monsters in the film?’ (Watch Key & Peele’s “White Zombies” sketch for an amusing flipping of the script.) And then there’s Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), which combines the premise of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with the genre of Night of the Living Dead to make the insidiousness of ‘polite’ white supremacy a thing of horror that plagues the main character. The festival ends with a documentary about perhaps the most eloquent and incisive critic of white liberal complicity, the inimitable James Baldwin. I Am Not Your Negro (2016) indicts white America for its willful blindness to the horrible crimes collectively committed against black people, all the while finding in the fact of Baldwin’s life reason to avoid drowning in pessimism and despair.

The screenings, which will be at 6:00 pm in Maybank 100, are free and open to the public, and each will be followed by a discussion led by a CofC faculty member. Popcorn and soda will be served as well.

October 9: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

October 23: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

October 30: Get Out (2017)

November 6: I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

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Statement Condemning White Supremacist Violence in Charlottesville – African American Studies Faculty

White supremacist mob in Charlottesville, VA (2017)

 

Lynch mob in Marion, IN (1930)

The white supremacist and white nationalist violence that erupted in Charlottesville last weekend made visible, with terrifying clarity, a truth at the heart of US history: white power, when confronted with threats, real or imagined, reacts with violence and death. As scholars who study the history and culture of African Americans, we recognize that black life is far richer and far more beautiful than a litany of abuses. We choose to frame black life beyond the reach of what Toni Morrison called “the white gaze,” but the fury of a white mob in 2017, wielding torches, brandishing pipes and assault rifles, spewing hate-filled rhetoric, and ramming a car into a peaceful anti-racist march threatens to impinge upon life beyond the white gaze. With images of that furious mob flooding our televisions and news feeds, we could not help but see in those faces a hatred tinged with arrogance reminiscent of the smiling white faces gazing out of lynching photographs from the Jim Crow era. This family resemblance reminds us that what happened in Charlottesville is as American as that small college town’s favorite son, Thomas Jefferson, which is to say, what happened in Charlottesville is as American as enslavement and lynching and convict leasing and debt peonage and mass incarceration.

The African American Studies Program condemns the white supremacist, neo-Confederate, and neo-Nazi ideologies harbored by the mob in Charlottesville as well as the violence these ideologies breed. We mourn the dead, and we wish healing to those anti-racist protesters who have suffered injuries of all stripes. We also recognize that what happened in Charlottesville was not exceptional or unique, after all, we remember all too well the massacre that happened just blocks from our offices two summers ago. Our students have already begun to return to campus in advance of the fall semester, and as much as recent events have shaken and disgusted us, we are deeply concerned for our students who are grappling with these acts of violence and their political aftershocks. In moments like these, the value of African American Studies as a discipline cannot be overstated. We, as educators, remain steadfast in our responsibility to provide the analytical tools, conceptual frameworks, and historical contexts to make our contemporary moment legible, if not comprehensible. We also remain committed to supporting our students, most especially those students of color for whom the violence in Charlottesville is no mere abstraction but a threat to their very existence. This violence may be a harbinger of even more terrifying things to come, but the tradition of radical protest that undergirds so much of African American history and culture keeps us pushing back and pressing forward.

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2017 ExCEL Awards

The annual Excellence in Collegiate Education and Leadership (ExCEL) Awards program honors members of the College and community who promote excellence and contribute to the College’s core values of diversity and inclusion.

The 2017 Outstanding Faculty of the Year for the School of Languages, Cultures and World Affairs was our very own Professor Mari Crabtree!

Another exciting ExCEL award is the Outstanding Students of the Year Lucille S. Whipper Award which was awarded to AAST major Aisha C. Gallion.

Award recipients were acknowledged on April 5, 2017 at the ExCel Awards Program held at the Sottile Theatre. The African American Studies program is very proud of all of our faulty and students and their accomplishments on and off of campus!

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“AAST Spring 2017 Film Festival: When Bruce Lee Meets Bruce Leroy”

The African American Studies Program’s Spring 2017 Film Festival explores the complexities of political and cultural (dis)connections between African Americans, Asian Americans, and Asians in film. Taken together, these films raise questions about the possibilities for trans-Pacific and domestic political alliances among people of color as well as the line between Afro-Asian cultural syncretism and appropriation. The film screenings will be held in the Septima Clark Memorial Auditorium (Education Center Room 118) and will begin at 6:30 pm.

Enter the Dragon (1973)  ¾ Monday, March 20
The Last Dragon (1985)  ¾ Monday, March 27
Black Dynamite (2009)  ¾ Monday, April 3
Yojimbo (1961)  ¾ Monday, April 10
Afro Samurai (2007)  ¾ Monday, April 17

[Note: Liz Wayne and Xine Yao, the hosts of the PhDivas podcast, deserve all the credit for the title of the film festival, “When Bruce Lee Meets Bruce Leroy.” In an episode of the podcast by the same name, they discussed the potential for what Vijay Prashad has called a polycultural politics between African Americans and Asian Americans.]

Suggested Readings:
Gateward, Frances. “Wong Fei-Hung in Da House: Hong Kong Martial-Arts Films  and Hip-Hop Culture.” In Chinese Connections: Critical Perspectives on Film, Identity, and Diaspora, edited by Tan See-Kam, Peter X Feng, and Gina Marchetti. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009.

Hewitt, Kim. “Martial Arts is Nothing if Not Cool: Speculations on the Intersection between Martial Arts and African American Expressive Culture.” In Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections Between African Americans and Asian Americans, edited by Fred Ho and Bill V. Mullen. Durham,       NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

Ho, Fred. “Kickin’ the White Man’s Ass: Black Power, Aesthetics, and the Asian Martial Arts.” In Afro-Asian Encounters: Culture, History, Politics edited by Heike            Raphael-Hernandez and Shannon Steen. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Ona-Jua, Sundiata Keita. “Black Audiences, Blaxploitation, and Kung Fu Films, and Challenges to White Celluloid Masculinity.” In China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic  Cinema edited by Poshek Fu. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

Prashad, Vijay. Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.

Whaley, Deborah Elizabeth Whaley. “Graphic Blackness / Anime Noir: Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks and the Adult Swim.” In Watching While Black edited by Beretta E. Smith-Shomade. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013.

Wilkins, Fanon Che. “Shaw Brothers Cinema and the Hip-Hop Imagination.” In China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema edited by Poshek Fu. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

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“Dexter Thomas to Give a Lecture on Japanese Hip-Hop Nationalism”

In conjunction with Professor Mari Crabtree’s First-Year Seminar, “When Bruce Lee Meets Bruce Leroy: Afro-Asian Political and Cultural (Dis)Connections,” the African American Studies Program has invited Dexter Thomas to deliver a lecture titled “‘Niggers and Japs’: The Logic of Japanese Hip-Hop Nationalism.” Thomas is a journalist with VICE News who has previously worked at the Los Angeles Times, and he is also a PhD Candidate in Asian Studies at Cornell University. His research examines Japanese hip-hop, most especially in the 1990s, and his lecture will focus on the right-wing Japanese nationalist rhetoric in the work of some Japanese hip-hop artists. He will explore how the infusion of Japanese nationalism into this music is largely the result of a problematic distortion of the black nationalist themes and imagery used by African American hip-hop artists like Public Enemy. The lecture will be held on Tuesday, March 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm in Robert Scott Small 252.

This lecture was made possible by the generous support of the Asian Studies Program, International Studies Program, First-Year Experience Program, and Music Department.

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Reflections on Black History Month

“Reflections on Black History Month”
Mari N. Crabtree

I have made the study of African American history and culture the heart of my professional life. It was coming to the revelation that, as Ralph Ellison put it, “The nation could not survive being deprived of [the African American] presence because, by the irony implicit in the dynamics of American democracy, they symbolize both its most stringent testing and the possibility of its greatest human freedom” that first drew me to Black Studies as an undergraduate. This revelation has been a guiding light for me ever since. And precisely because it has been a guiding light, I share the ambivalence about Black History Month articulated by the African American Studies Program’s motto: “Not Just in February.”

At the root of that motto is the sense that, although some attention to the black experience may be better than none, something so critical to the history and culture of the United States as the African American experience warrants attention well beyond the shortest month of the year. After all, the black experience cannot be safely compartmentalized away from the history of the United States or, for that matter, neatly disentangled from the rise of global white supremacy. We, as a nation, so often compartmentalize and disentangle. What Carter G. Woodson established as Negro History Week to recognize the significance of African American achievements in the face of unrelenting white supremacy has often been used as an excuse to ignore African American history for the rest of the year. We marginalize and erase to comfort ourselves, to deny reality, to shirk responsibility for our past and present, but we do so at our own peril. For deluding ourselves with such false comfort invites more than just distortion—as bad as that is—but, worse, mutual destruction.

My ambivalence towards Black History Month also stems from a tendency to celebrate heroes and “firsts” during February while removing these “heroes” from the movements they led and the broader social, cultural, and political contexts out of which they arose. On the one hand, this tendency reinforces the misperception that to study history one simply memorizes a series of events and studies the lives of “important” people—I assure you, that is not what I spent seven years in a PhD program doing. On the other hand, celebrating “firsts” often does not force a deeper engagement with ideas, with the question of justice, with the meaning of liberation. So often even the best-intentioned Black History Month celebrations oversimplify the past, reducing movements to milestones and martyrs, as though a speech or a law or a singular act or a chosen leader could resolve centuries-long struggles for justice, as though “progress,” whatever that means, is inevitable.

Ta-Nehisi Coates said as much in his memoir, Between the World and Me, when he wrote that his grandparents “rebell[ed] against the history books that spoke of black people only as sentimental ‘firsts’—first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor—always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit.” Celebrations of Black History Month often pull fragments from the black experience to create easily digested, pre-packaged trivia—shards of experience to commit to memory rather than understand in connection to broader historical debates. Denuded of context and therefore their connection to broader historical trajectories, these shards lose the full force of their meaning, or, worse, they become excuses for distorting their meaning.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that Black History Month has no place for celebration. (I am also not saying that the African American experience can or should be reduced to struggle and hardship—we must always remember joy and laughter, love and ingenuity.) I simply ask that we scrutinize what we are celebrating and we reflect upon the stakes of uncritically celebrating heroes and firsts.

We might take a page from Russell Rickford, whose article titled “King 2.0 and the Management of Dissent” exposes the Martin Luther King, Jr. we have come to know during Black History Month as an imposter. Rickford reminds us that the way we remember (and so often distort) historical icons tells us as much about the present and its politics as it does about the past. The imposter King, who so many Americans have embraced, serves to stifle the struggle for justice while reassuring the nation that the Civil Rights Movement resolved the “race issue.” This imposter King is defanged of his radicalism, stripped of his anti-war and anti-poverty stances. His confrontational and disruptive tactics are erased, as is the vitriol directed at him in life and death. The imposter, by design, urges us to abandon the struggle for justice because his ascent to the status of a “safe” national hero implies that the need to dissent and protest is over. But, as Rickford points out, in our times the urgency of taking up the mantle of the black freedom struggle is as pressing as ever, which is all the more reason to take a hard look at the tendency to uncritically celebrate. The struggle has not ended. And, if anything, Black History Month should inspire further action and harden our resolve to dismantle systems of oppression…not just in February either.

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Prof. Vanessa Agard-Jones to Deliver the 2016–2017 Conseula Francis Emerging Scholar Lecture

The late Conseula Francis (1973–2016), the former director of the African American Studies Program, was deeply committed to mentoring and supporting junior faculty, and one of the many ways in which she championed the work of junior scholars in the field of African American Studies was to establish the Emerging Scholar Lecture Series. We still feel the loss of Conseula every day, and to commemorate her unflagging commitment to our program and to the work of junior scholars, we have named this lecture series in her memory.

This year, Vanessa Agard-Jones, an assistant professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, will deliver the Conseula Francis Emerging Scholar Lecture on February 20, 2017. Her current book project, Body Burdens: Toxic Endurance and Decolonial Desire in the French Atlantic, uses ethnographic research to explore pesticides, sexual politics, and postcoloniality in Martinique. She analyzes the physical toll of toxins on the body as well as the metaphorical toxicity of colonialism in a post-colonial political context. Her other publications include Transnational Blackness: Navigating the Global Color Line (2008) co-edited with Manning Marable and articles in Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of CriticismGLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies, the Caribbean Review of Gender Studies, and the New West Indian Guide, among others. Prof. Agard-Jones’s lecture is titled “‘After the End of the World:’ A Black Feminist Analytic for the Anthropocene” and will be held at 6:00 pm in Alumni Memorial Hall (Randolph Hall). Please join us for her lecture as well as a seminar discussion of her work at 3:00 pm in 9 College Way, Room 201.

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“The African American Roots of Betsy DeVos’s Education Platform”

Professor Jon Hale wrote the article “The African American Roots of Betsy DeVos’s Education Platform” which was published in The Atlantic. The article looks at the long history of privatizing public schools in the African American community, which will only increase during the Trump presidency. The article discusses how black parents and educators have had to contend with privatization throughout American history out of necessity since the public has historically not invested in the education of African American students.

You can view the article here: theatlantic.com

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“A Worrying Exhale of an Ache” by Professor Mari N. Crabtree

“The sigh is a pathway to breath; it allows breathing. That’s just self-preservation. No one fabricates that. You sit down, you sigh. You stand up, you sigh. The sighing is a worrying exhale of an ache. You wouldn’t call it an illness; still it is not the iteration of a free being. What else to liken yourself to but an animal, the ruminant kind?”
–Claudia Rankine, Citizen

As I reflect back on the fall semester, which has already lost some of its sharpness in my memory, I find myself punctuating so many of my thoughts with deep sighs. I think back to the article I wrote about lynching in the American West and the public lecture I gave about James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates—those thoughts are punctuated with sighs of satisfaction tinged with exhaustion as much mental as physical. I also return to a few particularly heartening moments: the student who began a comment in class with the words, “well, as bell hooks would say…” followed by what bell hooks would say…the book club meeting when a student quite pointedly remarked that so much in her political theory class would have been clarified had they read the Charles Mills book we were discussing…the song a student wrote about weeks one through four of Introduction to African American Studies (and attached to a shy “if you have time…” email) with the Du Bois-Crabtree shoutout, “Crabtree says I may be double conscious.” But my thoughts settle the longest on a few heartwrenching moments I had in the classroom, and ruminating over those moments draws out the deepest of sighs, sighs that curl out of corners of my guts darkened by the shadows of too much to despair over in 2016. I think about all of the carefully prepared notes I penned on yellow legal pads that detailed which passages from which assigned reading I would use to shape discussions of texts with my students, and I start to count how many sets of notes I had to scrap or modify so we could collectively pause long enough to remember the lives of Terrence Crutcher, Tyre King, Keith Lamont Scott, Walter Scott, and others. Three, or was it four, or five?

In place of those discussions, we read poetry—Elizabeth Alexander’s “Smile,” Kamilah Aisha Moon’s “Perfect Form,” Langston Hughes’s “I, Too”—and studied paintings by Emma Amos and installations by Kara Walker, for, in my experience, art has a remarkable capacity to unlock what we otherwise can’t quite express. At its best, art leaves a residue on one’s consciousness and even on one’s face—a furrowed brow, a stunned look of realization, the awestruck expression that comes with a glimpse of the sublime, a devastating shudder, a mischievous smile—and that residue remains, clings to us most stubbornly, when the artist succeeds in illuminating something of human existence we may have seen before but not really understood. From years of writing about representations of lynching and, more recently, from reading Teju Cole’s “Death in a Browser Tab,” I knew better than to replay images of death for my students. I have no interest in joining ranks with CNN and feeding into the media’s sick fascination with turning violence against black bodies into a spectacle to be consumed on loop. Through art, through disentangling the difference between “obsequious” and “safe” as we did when we discussed Alexander’s “Smile,” the rawness of these deaths that touched too many of my students too close to home unleashed, for some, tears, for others, stories of sisters and brothers and cousins and friends whose experiences rhymed too closely with those of the deceased.

My students find few spaces on campus for these conversations, though I know such spaces exist, but I also know that having this discussion in a classroom during a class led by a professor—in place of, but also alongside, the material on the syllabus—mattered. The discussion provided recognition of these experiences, and although recognition remains important, recognition alone, especially if that recognition only occurs in small, marginal pockets of an institution, is insufficient. For, even though all of the students who take Introduction to African American Studies with me come away knowing how to distinguish between the “mere inclusion” of the African American experience and the transformation of master narratives (my everlasting gratitude to the inimitable Nathan Huggins for writing “The Deforming Mirror of Truth”), an institution can render courses and whole academic programs mere tokens when it fails to distinguish between the two. And the space in between is a space no sigh can breach.

The moment from the fall that I return to with the most frequency, however, is from three days after the election. The morning after, I didn’t know what to say to my students, but some wise words from a colleague at Brandeis, Chad Williams, provided the clarity I needed. Just before class started that Friday, I wrote a paraphrased version of his thoughts on the board: “We are on the verge of a Second Redemption. Beware of what you concede in the name of peace and reconciliation.” Placing the election in the broader context of the 150 years since the end of the Civil War, I retraced the political compromises and calls for (white) unity that led to Reconstruction’s demise, and I asked whether the rhetoric of the Confederate “Redeemers”—they were trying to “redeem” the Old South after emancipation and military defeat with terror and death—had a familiar ring in our times. Redemption slashed through that brief experiment in democracy, cutting the path that led directly to Jim Crow: lynching, disenfranchisement, segregation, chain gangs, the indignities of sidewalk etiquette and back doors, and the rest. All the rest.

After a long silence, a student asked, with an earnestness that both tore me up inside and made me feel the full weight of my limitations as a scholar, “What can we do?” The question came from a place so genuine that I faltered because I could hear in her voice the urgency with which she needed an answer. But how could I answer such a question when I had been struggling with the very same feelings of stunned confusion and something between grief and disgust for days? Not that I ever understand my role as a professor to be the source of “the answers”—I ask questions, challenge assumptions, draw connections between texts, shape discussions by fleshing out broader scholarly debates, clarify complex ideas, and help students hone arguments—but I found, as she and the rest of the class patiently waited for my reply and looked to me for clarity and guidance, that I was about to provide a disappointing answer. After a long pause, I looked up at her and told her, “That is a very difficult question to answer. I don’t know. I don’t know…except that we must fight.”

In the weeks since that class, I finished teaching my three courses, organized a teach-in on the United States post-election with some other faculty, and continued to work on my book manuscript, all of which, I hope, constitute a “fight” of a certain kind. But, for self-preservation, renewal, and, most importantly, inspiration, I have returned to art. I have immersed myself in beauty, in Claudia Rankine, James Baldwin, Yusef Komunyakaa, Toni Morrison, Paul Beatty, Billie Holiday, Akira Kurosawa, Kerry James Marshall, Teju Cole, Kara Walker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tanizaki Junichiro, Jesmyn Ward, and Marlon James. Artists like these don’t provide an escape or simple answers. (Teju Cole says that “[his] goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think,” and I am inclined to agree with his approach in novels, in teaching, and in life.) Artists provide a reprieve, though often a perplexing one, and maybe, just maybe, through the worlds they create, we can see a way forward in our own.

During this too-brief pause in teaching misleadingly referred to as “break,” I look back, but I also look forward. In the spring semester, I am offering a course, “Remembering and Forgetting: Race, Violence, and Memory in American History,” and I wonder, in this brave new political world—the Memory Studies scholar in me can’t help but ask, how “new” is “new” anyway?—, will the present let me catch my breath long enough to save me from revising my syllabus every couple weeks to accommodate new stories of racially motivated violence? As I teach “Mass Incarceration and Its Roots,” will I have to scrap my carefully crafted notes again and again as the criminalization of blackness grows unabated? Probably. I have already given up writing the epilogue to my book on lynching and memory until the rest of the manuscript has been completed because fresh bodies keep piling up and contemporary representations of lynching return too frequently for me to write cogently. My responsibility as a professor, however, cannot wait for the next iteration of my courses. I have preempted these probable disruptions with Rankine, Komunyakaa, Morrison, Beatty, Basho, Kurosawa, Cole, Walker, Ward, and others already scattered throughout my syllabi, but if my notes must be scrapped—and if the past has anything to tell us, then some will be scrapped—I may let out more deep sighs to open up “a pathway to breath” as Rankine says. And then, with airways freed of bad air, I will again turn to artists to sustain me and to sustain my students too.

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