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Posts Tagged ‘students’

Black History

November 24, 2015 | by

Celebrating Umoja Karamu, a “ritual for the black family,” on Thanksgiving.

From the cover of Disgruntled, Asali Solomon’s debut novel.

Back in the early 1980s, no one at the mostly white elite prep school I attended had heard of Kwanzaa, which I’d grown up celebrating instead of Christmas. This was a yearly hassle of explaining: yes, presents; no, Santa Claus. But absolutely no one had heard of Umoja Karamu, “a ritual for the black family” that we observed at Thanksgiving. This one I never volunteered to explain. Black families who celebrated Umoja Karamu (Kiswahili for “unity feast”)—and we were the only one I knew of—were to trade in the ritual of senselessly stuffing ourselves for one in which we used food and words to reflect on the grim, glorious trajectory of black people in America, to recall the crimes of the “greedy one-eyed giant” white man, and to keep the “Black Nation” energized and focused, struggling toward liberation from racism.

During Umoja Karamu, which lived in a 1971 booklet (a mere two years older than I was) published by a fellow Philadelphian named Edward Sims, we sat at our special holiday table and took turns reading solemnly aloud from a pithy narrative of African American history that moved from the ancient kingdom of Mali to the Watts riots. Between readings, we ate a symbolic sequence of aggressively non-Thanksgiving foods, including black-eyed peas, rice, corn bread, and leafy greens, all served unseasoned, perhaps to make us more thoughtful. Blessedly, my mother always insisted on a normal holiday meal after Umoja Karamu. But Edward Sims was certainly about his business. Each Thanksgiving, as I waited to get to the stuffing and gravy, I did indeed taste the suffering we read about. I experienced the “bland and tasteless condition under which Black Folk lived during the slavery period” in the form of unsalted white rice and chalky black-eyed peas. But happily, enduring Umoja Karamu, unlike the suffering of the Black Nation, was a private shame, one about which my school friends knew nothing. That is, until I received a fifth-grade assignment to write an essay about family Thanksgiving traditions and to read it aloudRead More »

I Kissed the Rod

November 20, 2015 | by

Beneath its old-fashioned exterior, Ernest Raymond’s Tell England (1922) radiates transgression.


I really think I like Radley better than anyone else in the world. I simply loved being whacked by him.

This extraordinary confession comes in the first chapter of Ernest Raymond’s 1922 novel, Tell England. It is offered in the dormitory after lights-out, whispered to the schoolboy narrator, Ray, by his friend Doe. Radley is their teacher, a tall, strict, athletic history master. You’d be hard-pressed to find a school story, or indeed a school, that didn’t go in for hero-worship, but Doe’s ardor overruns even that cup. Unlike Alec Waugh’s contemporaneous The Loom of Youth, which sought to expose the sexual and emotional realities of life in a boys’ school, Tell England is an old-fashioned, innocent, fundamentally Edwardian school story, a strange place to find such an extravagant declaration.

Raymond wrote more than sixty novels, but his most popular by far was this, his first. Though panned by critics, it was reprinted fourteen times in 1922, became a movie in 1931, and by 1939 had sold 300,000 copies. Today, though, Tell England is largely forgotten. From its psychological and sexual cluelessness to its glorification of military sacrifice, the novel can feel tediously dated. It’s an odd hybrid, half public-school novel, half paean to World War I. It includes all the trappings of the classic school story: athletics, classical learning, chivalry, Anglican Christianity, romantic friendship, and, of course, corporal punishment. Like most school stories, it is a narrative of character development. After its young hero enters the school at the bottom, he learns the ways of its world, undergoes trials, and grows into a leader. Read More »

Conservative Radicals

March 26, 2015 | by

frost meet the press

Frost on Meet the Press in 1955.

First, a general note: At what point do we stop celebrating the birthdays of the deceased? Yes, Robert Frost was born on this day in 1874, and yes, that would make him 141 today—had not death intervened in 1963, when, at eighty-eight, Frost had already been around for a good while. At a certain point, can’t we just say that today is “the anniversary of his birth”? The word birthday no longer seems to apply—in the normal range of things, it starts to feel a bit macabre. One begins to imagine cakes and party hats on gravestones. Read More »

Thawing Out

July 3, 2014 | by

Why are there so few courses in Soviet literature at American universities?


A Soviet poster from Albert Rhys Williams’s Through the Russian Revolution, 1920.

When I was completing a master's in comp lit at Oxford, I kept coming across a curious lapse—while most of my British peers had read at least some of the great writers of the Soviet canon, often as early as secondary school, my equally well-educated American friends had never even heard of them. The more I perused the courses of American universities, the more I found that Soviet literature—by which I mean the proverbial classics penned between the revolution and death of Stalin and published largely during Khruschev’s thaw—was noticeably absent. There were, of course, exceptions at institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, Yale, the University of Washington, and a few others, which are renowned for their Russian literature departments. But the majority of colleges, particularly liberal arts schools, focused on the nineteenth-century Russian novel and then skipped straight to Nabokov, or even to post-perestroika literature.

This absence struck me as odd, especially given the literary tastes of the Russian reading public. The Russian literati ostensibly admire and cherish the greats—your Tolstoys and Chekhovs, your Dostoevskys—but ask them to name their favorite writers and most will cite someone from this isolated literary isle. They might mention Mayakovsky, the macho darling of the Futurist movement, whose thundering poetry shook his listeners into an acute state of consciousness; or Akhmatova, an Acmeist poet who explored suffering, humanity’s great equalizer, with minimal words and explicit emotion. They could invoke Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago many Americans assume to be a tragic love story between a man and a woman, when really it’s a tragic love story between a man and a revolution, although in Russia Pasternak is celebrated even more for his poetry, especially his wildly experimental collection My Sister, Life. Then there’s the lyrical sentiment of Platonov, or the satire of Solzhenitsyn. There’s Bunin, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, Zoschenko, Babel, Bergholz, Zamyatin, Bely, Bulgakov, and a litany of other luminaries whose surnames have all but disappeared from university syllabi.

Is this a lingering effect of the Cold War, a symptom of our culture’s tendency to seal off what we fear or don’t understand? I’m reminded of the horrific looks I got from people the summer I was nineteen, when I decided to read Mein Kampf. They worried that it would negatively influence my nubile and malleable young mind—a concern I found irritating, since I’ve long believed it’s our moral obligation to dissect the most heinous events in history, to use literature as a scalpel of sorts. Was the fear and scorn of Soviet oppression, I thought, part of the reason its literature was kept behind closed doors, even all these years later? Read More »


The Savage

March 14, 2014 | by

The last of five vignettes.


Postcard of Zola, 1899.

I was teaching a class which I believe was called “Dramatic Theory” but which, more accurately, if more dauntingly, might have been called “On the Nature of Group Perception,” the study in which the dramatist is actually engaged.

The university had engaged me to show up two days each year for four years. In the second year of our compact I made a pre-appearance request of the English or dramatic department or whomever I was to traipse in under the auspices of.

I suggested they, if they wished, were free to judge the applicants for the limited space in the class according to grades, entrance quizzes, or any other criteria, if they, on determining the lucky winners, would then disqualify them, and assign the spaces at random to anyone else at all.

“Or just give me the ne’er-do-wells,” I asked.

I was saddened, but not surprised, to find, on my arrival, that the university had taken my request as a witticism, and chose for admittance only those students with high grade averages and correct demeanors. Read More »