Life & Letters Magazine http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu Tue, 18 Sep 2018 15:54:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Professor’s Play “Monroe” reveals the ripple effect of racial violence http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2018/09/professors-play-monroe-reveals-the-ripple-effect-of-racial-violence/ Tue, 18 Sep 2018 15:47:41 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=14794 If every action produces a series of consequences, imagine life if slavery or Jim Crow had never existed. Now, consider what has happened because they’ve existed.

That’s where the idea for Lisa B. Thompson’s play “Monroe” sparked.

“I want audiences to consider the ripple effect of racial violence on families and communities and how that continues for generations,” says Thompson, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

Lisa B. Thompson

“Monroe,” onstage at the Austin Playhouse through September 30, follows Cherry, a young African-American woman who, after the lynching death of her older brother, must decide whether preserving her family’s roots justifies living under Jim Crow in rural Louisiana in 1946.

Thompson was partly inspired by her own family history. Her father, from Lake Charles, and her mother, from Monroe, both migrated from Louisiana to the San Francisco Bay Area, during the Great Migration — a period from 1916-1970 characterized by a movement of more than 6 million African-Americans from the segregated south to the urban north.

Thompson actually wrote the play as a Stanford University graduate student in the nineties and had not revisited it for years until a friend suggested she submit it to local festivals. So, she did, and Monroe was a hit. It won recognition at the Austin Playhouse’s 2018 New Play Festival and was selected by director Lara Toner Haddock to open the 2018-19 season.

Austin Playhouse presents Monroe by Lisa B. Thompson, pictured: Kriston Woodreaux and Marc Pouhe. Photo courtesy of Austin Playhouse.

“When I found out that Lisa had actually worked on this play in grad school, I was stunned because it reads as such a contemporary piece,” Toner Haddock told KUT. “It’s set in 1946 but the themes, the subject matter, the way it deals with the violence against the African-American community feels like this is the play that needs to be told right now.”

Austin Playhouse presents Monroe by Lisa B. Thompson, pictured: Carla Nickerson and Deja Morgan. Photo courtesy of Austin Playhouse.

Thompson understands her play’s timeless value and hopes her audiences will make connections between the Jim Crow era, when thousands of black people were lynched, and today.

“Lynchings were often done on the courthouse lawn in front of hordes of white citizens who came to witness it while wearing their Sunday best, sometimes with their young children,” Thompson says. “Today’s extrajudicial killings come to us as viral videos on social media and in the news; hordes of citizens consume these murders while drinking their morning coffee or during a break at work.

“How should we move forward in the aftermath of continued racial violence?” she asks. “How do we confront this legacy?”

Thompson is also a faculty affiliate in the Department of English, Department of Theater and Dance, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, as well as the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at UT Austin.

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To Paint is to Write: The Study of Mithila Folk Art http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2018/08/to-paint-is-to-write/ Thu, 30 Aug 2018 15:15:13 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=14775 In English, writing is very different than painting. But in Hindi, and specifically in the landscape of Mithila folk art, “to paint” is “to write.” The distinction could be a phenomenon of grammar, or it may have to do with the fact that the tools of this trade are more like pens than brushes.

As an apprentice artist during my year as Fulbright scholar in India, I learned to paint in the Mithila style. In a surprising way, this hands-on course of study will help me — more than years of academic preparation could — “to write” my dissertation, a study of economic development in India, for the Department of Asian Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, my home as a Ph.D. student.

With the help and generosity of two of India’s most celebrated contemporary folk artists, Manisha Jha and Santosh Kumar Das, I was taught to use the delicate metal nibs, which characterize authentic Mithila art today, also known as Madhubani painting.

Lazarowicz’ painting of two birds in katchini style. Photo courtesy of Katie Lazarowicz.

“Madhubani” refers to the political district in Bihar, located in North India, where this art form was first documented by the British in the 1930s. “Mithila” refers to a larger region, expanding over the Himalayas into Nepal; Mithila corresponds to a culture, an ancient kingdom, and the heroine of the Indian Ramayana epic, princess Sita. We are told that such paintings were made for Sita’s wedding and that this art form was used to adorn mud walls, serving as a type of ritual manual for religious rites of passage for centuries.

Mithila art is recognizable by the bold lines giving shape to religious and natural motifs. Since its rise in popularity in the 1980s, traditional iconography (such as Hindu gods and goddesses) filled the tourist marketplace. Today, it can be found as a design on clothing, housewares, notebooks and on canvas in some higher-end galleries.

Lazarowicz, center, works on a Mother Goddess painting in preparation for the Durga Puja Festival. Photo courtesy of Madhubani Art Center, Director Manisha Jha, New Delhi

As a visual language, it has evolved to represent autobiographies, and some often political commentary on issues like domestic violence and women’s health and religious violence. When these are expressed on paper, “painting,” takes on an ever-greater sense of “writing,” as people share their stories. Paper is where my story as an artist began.

It took a few months before I could dip the nibs, which look and feel like calligraphy pens, with confidence. One must mix acrylic pigments with water until it has the viscosity of something not quite ink, but not quite paint. The proportions shift subtly based on seasons and environments, and the quality of these poster paints is inconsistent, in spite of being industrially produced.

Working six days a week alongside professionals was grueling work. Artists often work on the floor. Challenges of the first six weeks included bruises, calluses and strain on the eyes. Eventually, I found the rhythm together with women whose hands moved with the swift confidence of professional musicians whose instruments become extensions of their bodies. I rarely found a workshop not filled with song and humming, colors and lines flowing.

My paintings are a record of my progress. Every painted corner comes with a story – not about me, but the communities of artists who taught me: New babies, weddings, family members getting jobs, losing jobs, moving, opportunities, holidays, fasting days. I became a part of the larger community of “Madhubani painters.”

Seven years of Hindi, trips to India and academic work unlocked many doors but left me looking at this industry from the outside. Taking up an apprenticeship did something unexpected: I acquired more than the skills of a painter, but I adapted a type of physical literacy with the work. Often researchers collect data, my data is was written on my body.

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Decoding the Language of Love http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2018/08/decoding-the-language-of-love/ Mon, 20 Aug 2018 16:01:03 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=14758

“She looked at him through the light.
She saw the pride and the interest on that handsome, poetic face, with the edgy cheekbones under the scruff, as he’d worked through the day without shaving.
She saw both in his eyes, pure gray in candlelight.”

Excerpt from “Year One” by Nora Roberts

The secret to romance is out, though it doesn’t seem like such a secret. After all, people have been writing and reading about it centuries.

Romantic fiction is one of the most lucrative genres in the industry, drawing in more than 70 million readers across the United States — 85 percent of which are heterosexual females between the ages of 25 and 39 — and raking in annual profit of more than $1 billion. And while the genre is labeled as “fiction,” its vast readership and enticing prose divulge some truths about our society.

“Stories reveal how we think and feel about the world around us,” says Kate Blackburn, a psychology postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Texas at Austin who studies language patterns and what they say about an individual. Her latest research, published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, delves into words used in some of the most popular romance novels (published online by Smashwords) to unveil some of women’s most intimate views on romance.

“This study shows the fundamental way language reflects the way we think, feel and view others — or in this case, the nature of human sexuality,” Blackburn points out. “Identifying which words stimulate women between the pages, may also help their partners stimulate them under the covers.”

Read our full Q&A with Blackburn below:

How does literature reflect social norms and romantic values?

Blackburn: In many ways, stories are a snapshot of our culture. Past research used Harlequin and Silhoutte novels to learn more about women’s preferred qualities in mates, such as wealth, fitness and commitment. In our study, we follow that line of thinking by looking at the language used in romance novels to help understand more about how women perceive romance.

Have there been any major shifts throughout history in what romance novels suggest about social norms?

Sure, take the 1920’s romance novel. It was way more passionate and sexually expressive than romance novels written ten to twenty years prior to that. Some have argued that this shift in sexual expression mirrored what was happening at the time: Women had just earned the right to vote and were entering the work force in much larger numbers than before. It could be that this new-found freedom opened the opportunity for sexual expression.

What words do readers tend to gravitate toward in romance novels?

Interestingly, we found women were attracted to words that communicate sexual intentions, such as chuckle or moan. In a sense, these words may be tapping into the way readers explore or imagine sexual communication strategies and rehearse for the real thing.

What words were commonly used that surprised you? What words were left out?

We found that female readers appear to enjoy novels with a strong preference for sexual words, such as kiss, sensation and sex. But, some sexual words were missing. While words referencing male body parts were commonly used, female body parts were referenced less frequently in popular romance novels.

Why are there so many references to facial features in romance novels?

Evolution tells us that when women look for a mate they often scan the face for cues that signal good health — good skin and symmetry, that sort of thing. Additionally, we know that romantic partners may focus on the face to increase affection or romantic feelings. So, when words, such as mouth or grin appear it may signal a potential romance to the female reader.

Are there any other commonly used words that tie to our evolutionary past?

Commonly used primal words, such as growl, may reinforce certain cultural scripts we have about the typical romance story. In a way, romance stories create situations where the male is dominant and has a primal need to seduce his love interest.

Have you looked at whether men or women tend to be the authors of the most popular books?

This is a great question. We do know that almost 84 percent of romance novel writers are women. Unfortunately, in this study we only looked at female romance novel writers. It may be that men who write romance novels use different words to tell a romantic story. And, in doing so, their words may reveal male perceptions about women’s expectations of romance.

Psychology undergraduate researchers Omar Olvarez and Ryan Hardie also contributed to this study.

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A Shoemaker’s Dilemma: Q&A with English Alum and Author Spencer Wise http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2018/08/a-shoemakers-dilemma-qa-with-english-alum-and-author-spencer-wise/ Tue, 14 Aug 2018 18:54:04 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=14742 Set in contemporary South China, The Emperor of Shoes is about a young Jewish Bostonian preparing to take over his family’s shoe business. But he ends up falling in love with a factory worker who may or may not be using him as a pawn to start a pro-democratic revolution in the factory.

For author Spencer Wise, the topic is deeply personal and well-researched. His family has been making and designing shoes for five generations — the last 30 years in China. The book was recently featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and called one of “the seasons most promising debuts.”

I sat down with Wise, a University of Texas at Austin creative writing alumnus, to chat about his novel and how it explores the clash of Western and Eastern cultures:

What kind of research did it take to write this novel and what inspired you to take on the project?

Spencer Wise (M.A., English, 2009).

Spencer Wise — Like most Jewish novels, this one starts with guilt. My family has been in the shoe business for five generations, and it ends with me. Though it was my choice, I feel guilty for ending this lineage that in so many ways defines me. So, I wanted to connect to what my father and grandfather and great-grandfather knew about this ancient art of shoemaking.

I began writing early drafts of the novel in graduate school at UT, where I began developing the characters while studying under such great writers and teachers as Elizabeth Harris, Oscar Casares, Pete LaSalle and Jim Magnuson.

In the summer of 2014, I did a real apprenticeship, learning every facet of the shoe business while living in the dormitory of a shoe factory in South China. I interviewed many of the workers and made a few deep friendships with younger supervisors who showed me the inner-workings of the factory. Some were even generous enough to invite me to their homes to meet their families.

Before doing research in China, did you know where the story was going?

SW – It’s easy to forget the real people behind our clothes, our shoes, our furniture. So, I wanted to make their stories visible. I’d like to think that’s one of the ways we develop empathy. When I started researching, I was surprised to find that two ancient cultures — Jewish and Chinese — shared this pervasive sense of family as something that’s nurturing and wonderful; and yet, at the same, a yoke or burden, some claustrophobic thing one can’t escape from.

But I didn’t have any clue what the plot was about when I first got to China. The young Chinese people I met were immensely proud of their country and heritage, but showed surprising dissatisfaction toward the Chinese government, its corrupt, hypocritical system and the widening income gap. They seemed angry enough to do something about it.

How do you feel about The New York Times calling it a novel for “our times.”

SW – It’s an honor to be recognized on that scale as an author, but I also think the issues in the book — cultural clashes, globalization, migrant labor, activism — have been relevant for a long, long time. I think when Trump was elected with such a divisive agenda, these issues were thrust into the spotlight, which was lucky for me. But the novel is about a world that’s always been here. One that we mostly choose not to look at it in order to maintain a comfortable quality of life.

To what extent is this book meant to be politically provocative?

Hanover Square Press, June 2018.

SW – Well, certainly it’s a critique of global capitalism and whether or not it can ever be done ethically. But it’s also a book about family business and shoemaking as an art form. When I was writing it, I just wanted to tell the most honest and urgent story I could.

More than anything, it’s a novel about two real people yearning to find their own identities in face of serious obstacles wrapped up in old traditions and heritage and family. How much of that can you lose — as you see in hyper-capitalistic China or in the attenuating levels of religiosity among Jews — before we forget who we are? I don’t have an answer, by the way. I like what Chekov said about “Anna Karenina:” “The job of the novelist is to ask questions, not answer them. Tolstoy asks them beautifully.” I’ve paraphrased, I think.

Though the Dad could be seen as “the evil capitalist boss,” I was surprised to find myself having compassion for him.

SW — The family are self-made immigrants who suffered and worked tremendously hard to achieve the American dream. At the same time, I was deeply troubled by the idea that a Jewish family — like my own — who have been subject to such persecution and discrimination in the past only to turn around and exploit migrant workers in China.

In reality, the factory managers and owners still work 16-hour days. Their lives aren’t very glamorous. So, I think the book portrays the universal human struggle to make a living and support your family by any means necessary. While in China, I noticed that many business people abroad succumb to their exhaustion and inability to speak the langue by hiding in their hotels — a choice that is, I think, subconsciously necessary to create distance between “us” and “them” that makes their jobs possible. 

It certainly seems quite true-to-life. Is it at all autobiographical?

SW — No, no. Not at all! It is funny, but I’ve been asked this question before. I guess I should take it as a compliment that it feels so real. I worked hard to craft characters that the audience would care about: Complex people facing complex problems. That was my aim. But nothing in this novel happened to me. My father is nothing like the dad in the book. And I never tried to take over my family business.

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Pursuing a Passion for Service and Justice http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2018/08/pursuing-a-passion-for-service-and-justice/ Thu, 02 Aug 2018 16:16:05 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=14727 Milla Lubis, a psychology and social work double major from Allen, Texas, has been awarded the 2018 Randy Diehl Prize in Liberal Arts.

Now in its third year, the $15,000 award was established by donors to support a graduating liberal arts senior who is committing the year after graduation to service for the greater good, be that through work for a nonprofit organization, a for-profit organization that benefits others or the creation of a new nonprofit.

“The intent behind this gift is to encourage liberal arts graduates to use their considerable skills in communication and understanding of other cultures, histories, philosophies and literature to effect a positive change in the world,” said the prize’s founding donors.

Lubis is a prime example of that type of graduate. As a student, she was actively involved on campus, and served leadership roles in the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective (ADPAC), worked as a Voices Against Violence peer educator, joined the first cohort of Interpersonal Violence Peer Support volunteers and was a member of the Texas Orange Jackets.

On top of her campus commitments, as a student Lubis interned for Project Vote Smart and Refugee Services of Texas.

This summer, Lubis has been attending Teach For America’s Summer Institute in preparation for her two-year commitment to teaching at a low-income elementary school in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where she hopes to improve the lives of her students and increase their opportunities for education.

In addition to recognizing Lubis, the awarding committee was so impressed with English and Mexican American and Latina/o Studies senior Angela Vela’s vision to serve others by establishing a literacy program in Laredo, Texas, that they awarded her an additional prize of $2,500.

Read more about Lubis’ many accomplishments, her goals for the future and the impact the award will have on her in the Q&A below.

How did you react when you found out you’d received the Diehl prize?

Funnily enough, I was on a beach in Mexico in the pouring rain when I found out that I had been selected. I envisioned this trip as a way to celebrate my two degrees, but we were caught in daily thunderstorms. When I received the email, everything melted away and I could not stop smiling.

Milla Lubis

What does being a Diehl Prize recipient mean to you?

Being selected as the recipient of the Diehl Prize lifted a weight off of my shoulders. During my junior year of college, I was sexually assaulted, which led me to experience intense depression, suicidal ideation and trauma. When I sought services I came across a number of issues. I had already used my six sessions at the Counseling and Mental Health Center, and so I would have to find an off-campus provider, which is more expensive. I was recommended to join an intensive outpatient group to address these issues but it was another additional cost.

Throughout college, I saved every cent just in case my health required it. Before committing to Teach for America, I was concerned that our 15-hour work days of student teaching, educator preparation and lesson planning would trigger something and that I would not have the financial means to help myself.  I will not be receiving a paycheck until mid-September and the reality is that mental health services are expensive. The award allows me to pursue my passion of service and justice without worry. I can commit myself to caring for my students by ensuring that I care for myself.

When did you know that you wanted to teach?

Education is the key to achieving equal opportunities for every group. Yet the doors to education have often been barred for children of certain races or socioeconomic statuses. What I learned from community organizers and activists in Austin is that the majority of students of color enter the gateway to incarceration beginning with a referral from the classroom to the courtroom, regarding behavioral issues. This phenomenon is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. I am attempting to disrupt the cycle by taking direct action and becoming a teacher in a low-income school that primarily serves black and brown youth.

Lubis with fellow members of the Texas Orange Jackets at an alumni tailgate.

Can you tell me about your involvement with student organizations on campus?

My leadership in student organizations and service to the University and community has inspired me to dedicate my life to enacting change for the benefit of society. For two years, I served as the Director of Political Engagement and the Director of Community Engagement for Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective (ADPAC), an agency housed within the Multicultural Engagement Center. I spearheaded several community events targeting a variety of topics including immigration, toxic masculinity, feminism and the model minority myth.

Additionally, I worked as a Voices Against Violence peer educator; I taught students that rape culture consists of attitudes, behaviors and actions that condone sexual violence in an attempt to change the current culture. Then I joined the first cohort of Interpersonal Violence Peer Support volunteers when the peer education program ended. I underwent 40 hours of specialized training to offer confidential, emotional support to student victims of sexual violence. The folks who are involved in IVPS are phenomenal. Each person challenges himself or herself to learn continuously and be a patient, compassionate listener. I hope to bring this with me as I step into the classroom.

Finally, as a Texas Orange Jacket, I acted as one of the official hosts of the University and acted a role model for the girls at the Settlement Home, a residential treatment facility for girls who have experienced trauma.

What was your most memorable moment at UT Austin?

My most memorable moment at UT was my induction into Texas Orange Jackets. I walked into Littlefield House not knowing what would come. The women I have had the privilege to know through Texas Orange Jackets have become my friends, collaborators and role models. Sit in on a brunch with these women and you will have complex discussions about the scarcity of mental health services in southern Dallas, educational reform and the separation of families at the border. I am beyond thankful for them.

Lubis (second from right) with other members of the Texas Orange Jackets.

Where did you intern as a student? What did you learn from those experiences?

During my sophomore year, I interned at Project Vote Smart and in my senior year I worked at Refugee Services of Texas as a Social Adjustment Services intern. My internship with Project Vote Smart deepened my understanding of the legislative process. I believe this internship supported my training at the Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) Youth Leadership Summit. I was given a fully funded opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. to participate in three days of advocacy training and leadership development with AAAJ. At the end of our summit, AAAJ organized opportunities for us to speak with representatives from our states. I spoke with Representative Lamar Smith about supporting undocumented students and families, disaggregating census data on Asian American Pacific Islanders and immigration reform. These experiences of community building and voter education helped build the skills needed to lead educational workshops for refugees, asylees, and special immigrant visa holders in my role as a Social Adjustment Services intern for Refugee Services of Texas.

Lubis with other students at the AAAJ Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C.

At Refugee Services of Texas, I served clients who are of different cultures, ages, religions and immigration statuses. While serving my clients, I reminded myself that they are capable and resilient; by doing so I apply strengths perspective. The process of immigrating to the United States as a refugee, asylee or special immigrant visa holder is extremely difficult. If my clients are able to successfully navigate that, then they are capable of overcoming any obstacle that they face. I remind myself that the communities I hope to serve have the inherent strength and ability to advance themselves. We are not saving people; we are providing them the support and services they need to be successful.

What has studying the liberal arts taught you?

My liberal arts education pushed me to search for the root of issues such as poverty, racism and educational inequality. My education taught me to be critical of the ways that systems maintain and perpetuate inequality. Since entering the University of Texas, I have focused my passions towards serving others. The injustices students of color face such as discrimination, stereotypes and negative peer pressure discourage students from seeing themselves as successful, aspiring to attend college and navigating the college application process. These injustices are unacceptable. By understanding how larger issues of racism, sexism and poverty encourage the cycle of educational inequality, I can end it. In my pursuit of degrees in both psychology and social work, I have developed unique skills and perspectives that enable me to achieve one of the core purposes of the University, a life dedicated to “transforming lives for the benefit of society.”

To learn more about the Randy Diehl Prize in Liberal Arts, visit this webpage.

Students who want to participate in campus leadership or land internships should visit the Liberal Arts Frontiers website.

Photos courtesy of Milla Lubis

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Four Reasons Everyone Should Study History http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2018/07/four-reasons-everyone-should-study-history/ Mon, 23 Jul 2018 18:25:24 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=14713 In the past, STEM and the arts and humanities have largely been taught as unconnected disciplines, but there is more overlap between fields than many realize.

Erika Bsumek, an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and a 2018 recipient of the Regent’s Outstanding Teaching Awards, wants to help students see how different disciplines are connected. In her class, Building America: Engineering Society and Culture, 1868-1980, Bsumek teaches humanities and STEM majors how history, culture and politics have shaped technological advances and, in turn, how technology has restructured society in numerous ways in the process.

Bsumek, who also teaches Native American and Environmental history, strives to help all of her students see the world around them in new ways. She says learning history can be interesting and even fun. The more history they learn, the better prepared they will be to solve the biggest challenges society faces now and in the future. Here are four reasons why she says learning history can help them do that.

  1. It helps us understand how our time is different from or similar to other periods.

In today’s world, where people often cherry pick facts about the past to prove points, it helps to place current events in historical context. History is an evidenced-based discipline. So, knowing how and where to find the facts one needs to gain a fuller understanding of today’s contentious debates can help us understand not only what is being said, but it can also help us grasp what kinds of historical comparisons people are making and why they are making them.

For instance, understanding how Native Americans were treated by both white settlers and the federal government can help us better understand why indigenous communities often resist what many non-American Indians view as seemingly “goodwill gestures” or “economic opportunities” — such as the proposed construction of a pipeline on or in proximity to Native land or a proposal to break up reservations into private parcels. Both kinds of actions have deep histories. Understanding the complexities associated with the historical experiences of the people involved can help build a better society.

  1. History helps you see the world around you in a new way.

Everything has a history. Trees have a history, music has a history, bridges have a history, political fights have a history, mathematical equations have a history. In fact, #everythinghasahistory. Learning about those histories can help us gain a deeper understanding of the world around us and the historical forces that connect us and continue to influence how we interact with each other and the environment.

For instance, when we turn on the tap to brush our teeth or fill our pots to cook we expect clean drinking water to flow. But, how many people know where their water comes from, who tests it for purity, or how society evolved to safeguard such controls? To forget those lessons makes us more prone to overlook the way we, as a society, need to continue to support the policies that made clean water a possibility.

  1. History education teaches us life skills.

In history courses, we learn not just about other people and places but we learn from them. We read the documents or materials that were produced at the time or listen to the oral histories people tell in order to convey the meaning of the past to successive generations. In doing so, we learn that there is just not one past, but a pluralism of pasts. This kind of knowledge can help the city manager and the engineer plan a new highway, city or park. It can also help us navigate our daily lives and learn to ask questions when we encounter people or places we don’t initially understand.

  1. Studying history teaches students the skill sets that they will need in almost any major or job.

Studying history and other humanities can not only pique one’s imagination and engage students, history courses can also help students learn how to take in vast amounts of information, how to write and communicate those ideas effectively, and, most importantly, to accept the fact that many problems have no clear-cut answer. As a result, history classes help students to cultivate flexibility and a willingness to change their minds as they go about solving problems in whatever field they ultimately choose.

Performance in history courses can also be a good indicator of a student’s overall ability to succeed in college. A recent article by the American Historical Association reports that “two national studies that show that college students who do not succeed in even one of their foundational-­level [history] courses are the least likely to complete a degree at any institution over the 11-year period covered by the studies.” Why? The skills one learns in a well-taught history course can help students develop a flexible skill set they can use in their other classes and throughout their lives.

 

Featured image: Erika Bsumek at the Mansfield Dam located in Austin, Texas. Photo by Kirk Weddle.

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The Future is Female: Young Women Inspired to take on NEW Leadership™ Roles http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2018/07/the-future-is-female-young-women-inspired-to-take-on-new-leadership-roles/ Thu, 05 Jul 2018 18:44:50 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=14669 With more running for political office than ever before, women have moved beyond breaking ceilings and on to breaking records.

But there’s still more work to be done.

This year, more than 2,500 women filed for national- or state-level candidacy in a bi-partisan effort to increase female representation in politics nationwide, where women currently hold 20 percent of all congressional seats and less than 25 percent of state legislator positions. To ensure female political representation continues to grow, The University of Texas at Austin Center for Women’s & Gender Studies brought the national NEW Leadership™ program to Texas for its seventh consecutive year.

A panel of female local government leaders speak with conference participants at Austin City Hall.

“I thought it would be interesting to learn more about why women are so underrepresented and what we can do about it,” said Rhie Azzam Morris, a history senior at Sam Houston State University. “I learned to compromise my strategies and not my values, and that many of my attributes that the world teaches women are deficits are actually gifts, such as owning my space, speaking up and not being afraid to ask questions.”

The non-partisan, weeklong summer institute, established at Rutgers University, is designed to empower women — especially women of color — to participate in political leadership roles by introducing them to current political professionals and creating an open dialogue about women in leadership and politics.

“This is the first and only program of its kind in Texas,” said the center’s director Susan Heinzelman, a UT Austin associate professor of English. “NEW Leadership™ Texas strives to instill the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for effective political engagement and community organizing and asks women to get involved in politics by working on campaigns and issues that further their own values and beliefs about how to improve society.”

This year had the most diverse cohort to date, conference organizers said. The 38 participants ranged from 19 to 45 years old, hailed from 28 colleges and universities across the state, and represented the full length of the political spectrum and diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Students worked in groups to learn more about their civic responsibility

“I learned that there are so many people from all walks of life that you will have a lot in common with,” said Kimberley Giden, a political science major at the University of Houston-Downtown. “I’ve learned that you should judge less, observe more and find a common ground with all those you come into contact with.”

Conference participants take a seat at the Texas State Capitol.

According to the 2018 Texas Civic Health Index, political participation in Texas remains extremely low. Based on figures from the 2016 general election, the state ranked 44th in voter registration and 47th in voter turnout among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. NEW Leadership™ Texas would like to change all of that, Heinzelman said.

“I realized I was not at the conference to just work on my perceived weaknesses, but to see my strengths and understand how they can be used to make change,” said Meagan Biscamp, a social work junior at St. Edwards University who was inspired by the conference to start an Ignite Texas chapter at her school to empower young women to become civically engaged and run for office.

Other graduates of the program have gone on to run for city councils, lead campaigns, intern in Washington, D.C., and work in groundbreaking areas of political technology, conference organizers said.

“The self-care sessions, meeting amazing women, and learning about women and their role in politics made me feel empowered,” said A’breanna Harrison, a junior education major at Hardin Simmons University. “It fueled me to help myself to help the worldI felt like I could accomplish anything I put my mind to.”

The 2018 NEW Leadership cohort outside Austin City Hall.

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Fight Like a Girl:  How Women’s Activism Shapes History http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2018/07/fight-like-a-girl-how-womens-activism-shapes-history-2/ Tue, 03 Jul 2018 16:12:49 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=14641 Alice Embree doesn’t know what came over her the first time she stood up against injustice. She just knew it was the right thing to do.

Along with her friends Karen and Glodine and the rest of the Austin High School drill squad, Embree had just sat down to order at a restaurant in Corpus Christi when a waitress approached Glodine, the sole African American on the squad, and said, “Honey, we just can’t serve you here.”

“They won’t serve Glodine. We need to leave,” Embree recalls saying almost instinctively to her teammates, but they wouldn’t budge, muttering the excuse, “but we just ordered.”

“It was as if the decorum of the place was more important than the principle to everybody else,” Embree says.

Alice Embree, April 2018. Photo by Sarah Lim.

She and her two friends were the only ones who left to eat lunch at Woolworth’s, which was integrated at the time, before meeting back up with the rest of the group. That moment, she says, foreshadowed becoming a freshman at The University of Texas at Austin in 1963 when its dormitories and sports teams were still segregated and in a city that was still enforcing poll taxes.

“We’d been raised to believe certain things about the country and suddenly they appeared not to be true at all, like ‘we’re all created equal,’” scoffs Embree, who came to UT to study anthropology, though she admits her major might as well have been “SDS” — Students for a Democratic Society, a 1960s student activist group of the New Left.

Candidate for Vice President of the Student Assembly Alice Embree, supporting the SDS stand, addressed the Texas Veteran’s rally during the campaign, 1967. Photo by The Cactus, 1967, Vol. 74, Texas Student Publications, Inc.

By the mid-1960s, the pressures of the draft for the Vietnam War and disparities between race and gender populations were becoming intolerable. There was an outcry for peace, demands for true equality, and an uproar of women defying gender norms in the name of liberation.

“That was the environment that changed me into an activist,” Embree says.

Raised Voices, and Suspicions

Embree became involved with SDS after she was handed a copy of the Port Huron Statement —the group’s manifesto — while walking through UT’s West Mall. From there she began working on an underground, counterculture newspaper called The Rag, which was founded in 1966, first as a typist and later as a writer. It was a time when women in the office pushed to have their voices heard.

The Rag really embraced women’s liberation while a lot of other underground newspapers literally imploded,” says Embree. In each week’s issue, The Rag shared viewpoints on the black struggle, the farm workers’ movement, women’s liberation, free speech, anti-war protests and other social grievances that the local and national papers weren’t reporting.

“We wanted to have an alternative view to the media,” says UT law professor Barbara Hines, who came to UT in 1965 to study Spanish and Latin American studies while also getting involved with The Rag and women’s movement. “Remember, this is a time way before the internet. There were limited viewpoints you could access in the media.”

Unlike many underground newspapers, The Rag at The University of Texas at Austin embraced women’s liberation. Here, women of The Rag and “Mother Smith” (right) work on layout, February 1974. Photo by Alan Pogue.

Despite the university’s attempt to stifle their editorial voices and printers around town refusing to print material with such crude language and radical viewpoints, The Rag pressed on.

Cries for liberation spread like wildfire at UT and across the U.S. as women came together in consciousness-raising groups to discuss their experiences.

“I guess you have to understand that women didn’t do that before, that that was such a novel approach,” Embree says, adding that against the backdrop of the civil rights, free speech and anti-war movements, women began to understand their story as a social structure.

“You’re in a framework that’s like a prison under patriarchy. Whether you like it or not, you have all these barriers and all these things and expectations that encircle you,” says Martha Cotera, who participated in the Chicano and women’s liberation movements. “The patriarchy has control over our reproductive lives, control over economic lives, control over our thinking and cultural lives, control over everything to keep the cage in place.”

These women looked at a variety of issues, building off of questions asked in the civil rights struggle and the war struggle, and they began to consider and challenge the age-old expectations of wifehood and motherhood and push for autonomy as sexual beings, Embree says. They examined employment barriers and pay scales, realizing the concept of “the glass ceiling” before it even had a name.

The Rag, October 30, 1967.

“It was eye-opening for all of us because I think it was the first time that women really talked about the socialization and the objectification of women and the discrimination against women,” Hines says.

Off campus, there were no female firefighters, police officers, or EMS workers. And if a woman tried to enter one of those professions, it was either through a lawsuit or a threat of a lawsuit, Embree explains. By 1968, women made up only 7 percent of doctors, 3 percent of lawyers and 1 percent of engineers and were making 40 percent less than men for the same jobs nationwide. And campus was a reflection of that. There were few female graduate students and even fewer female faculty members.

“To go to law school or medical school was to make a political statement,” says Hines. She was classified as “Disloyal No. 3, known to sympathize with members of the Communist Party” in a 100-page FBI file detailing her involvement in the women’s liberation movement — though Hines says she was never involved with the Communist Party.

It seems there had been a mole attending The Rag and women’s liberation meetings. “Source stated that women’s liberation is basically opposed to male chauvinism to the point of eliminating the wearing of brassieres and clean attire in order not to be a sex symbol,” the FBI file continues. “The group also favors abortion.”

Getting Organized

It was a time of mass domestic surveillance in the U.S. under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who trained the agency’s eyes and ears on anyone suspected of posing a political threat.

Some fears circulated around the possibility of a phone tap at the Y, where Hines and other women ran a birth control counseling center in a small room next to The Rag’s office. At the time, birth control was not available to anyone who wasn’t married or engaged — or had some form of acne that could only be cleared with the pill’s high dosage of progesterone, Hines adds, offering one way women were able to get around the restriction.

Their operation seemed low risk enough to advertise in The Rag, but eventually women started asking questions about abortions.

“We sent women who had money to other states where it was legal, but primarily we sent women to a doctor in Eagle Pass — well, he was actually in Piedras Negras, just south of the border,” says Hines, who is also affiliated with the UT Austin Immigration Studies Initiative.

The group became concerned with their liability under conspiracy laws as aiders and abettors and reached out to one of the only lawyers they thought would be willing to help: Sarah Weddington, who recounts in her book, A Question of Choice, the conversation she had with the student group that sparked her decision to take on the case of Roe v. Wade.

“If you think back to 1970, there was not a woman gynecologist in Travis County. You couldn’t get birth control prescriptions unless you were married, except for one doctor. Women had no resources whatsoever to help them control reproduction. All of these things kind of kindled change,” Embree says. “We brought attention to that, and then we began to make changes.”

“SOURCE STATED THAT WOMEN’S LIBERATION IS BASICALLY OPPOSED TO MALE CHAUVINISM TO THE POINT OF ELIMINATING THE WEARING OF BRASSIERES AND CLEAN ATTIRE IN ORDER NOT TO BE A SEX SYMBOL.” –From a 100-page FBI file detailing Barbara Hines’s involvement in the women’s liberation movement

Austin women activists began to call foul on issues related to domestic and sexual violence. In working with the Mexican American Business and Professional Women — “a safe name that hid radical work” — Cotera helped open the Austin Rape Crisis Center in 1974 and the Center for Battered Women in 1977.

“We did a lot in bringing the churches around, and the police and the courts around to negotiate services for rape victims and victims of domestic abuse,” says Cotera, who learned about the terrors of domestic abuse when living in Crystal City, Texas, and working with teachers who were sheltering women and children who suffered domestic abuse.

“I learned how risky it is to host abused families in a house with the potential of angry spouses locating them and endangering everyone in the house, including the host,” Cotera says. “That’s when we arrived at the idea that you needed to have a neutral territory that was well-secured to keep people safe.”

Barbara Hines, April 2018. Photo by Sarah Lim.

On campus, Cotera focused her efforts on organizing ethnic studies education and establishing the university’s Center for Mexican American Studies.

“Things weren’t happening fast enough, so we took off with other educational activists to start our own independent college,” says Cotera, describing the idea that led to establishing Jacinto Trevino College in Mercedes, Texas, in 1969. “It was a way to do it quickly, to educate more teachers.”

Passport photo of Barbara Hines, 1971. Photo by Alan Pogue.

Though she laughs and admits the whole idea sounds crazy now, she knew the importance cultural institutions would have in providing a real, holistic education to students, so much so that she also helped establish Austin’s Mexican American Cultural Center and ardently supported the Mexic-Arte Museum within the same decade.

“When you’re at the bottom, every little gain that you make, you’re happy for,” Cotera says. “I thought our movement might last forever and go on and on and on.”

Untold History

“It’s amazing to me how important this history is here that isn’t told,” says Laurie Green, a UT Austin history and women’s and gender studies professor who argues that most of the narratives about the women’s liberation movement focus on the Northeast, the Midwest or the West Coast, not the South and certainly not Austin, Texas.

This omission sparked the idea for her fall 2017 class assignment — a women’s activism memoir project in which Green’s students would interview women’s liberation activists who had either attended UT or lived in Austin in the ’60s and ’70s, including Cotera, Embree and Hines.

“I wanted this history to be real for them and understand that this is their history — this is our history,” Green asserts.

To ensure these women’s stories wouldn’t vanish from history as many often do, Green partnered with the university’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History to archive the transcripts and recorded interviews between the students and activists in a permanent collection that will soon be accessible for others to study for years to come.

“Women’s history is a very rich and lively kind of study, especially when we really reach deep into the lives of these activists who define activism in a very broad way,” says Jacqueline Jones, professor of history at UT and chair of the department. “Yet, a lot of that has been lost to us. That’s why this project is so important.”

Watch “Fight Like A Girl,” a mini documentary on what UT students learned about Austin’s Women’s Liberation Movement:

Oftentimes, women’s activity of the past is painted with a very broad brush, garnering titles such as “first wave” or “second wave”— both of which were described for the first time in a 1968 New York Times article, “The Second Feminist Wave,” which outlined the demands of the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Classifying these eras as “waves” can be problematic because they compress all women activists and all their struggles from the mid-19th century to the late-20th century into just two compartments: the women’s suffrage movement, which ended in 1920 with the 19th Amendment, and women’s activism of the 1960s and 1970s.

“Many UT activists in the project didn’t describe themselves with the word ‘feminism,’ which they identified with older women in NOW. They used ‘women’s liberation,’” says Green.

Women protest in support of the Equal Rights Amendment at the Texas Capitol, April 1975. [Center] Martha Cotera holds “Liberty, Justice, All” sign. Photo by Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

“The term ‘feminist’ can hinder our understanding of women’s activities in the past because women who were very outspoken, very active, who seemed to be breaking norms at the time, were not always acting on behalf of all women,” says Jones, whose recent book, Goddess of Anarchy, delves deep into the formidable life of Lucy Parsons, a quintessential agitator of the late 19th and early 20th century who spoke of growing inequality and the rights of workers who were being displaced by machines, but was most certainly not a “feminist.”

“She was not sympathetic to women reformers. She really felt that they were just kind of tinkering with the capitalist system and that it needed to be destroyed,” Jones says. “It would have been unusual to find women, especially in the 19th and well into the 20th century, who had a view of universal womanhood; most women defined their place in the society within the context of their own kin, religious, class, ethnic, racial or regional group, and not exclusively according to their gender.  Of course, to a certain extent that is the case today as well.”

Universal Womanhood

In fact, NOW, which was first headed by Betty Friedan — who is often credited for sparking the so-called second wave with her groundbreaking 1963 book The Feminine Mystique — has been criticized for operating under the ideas of “white feminism.” Rather than rallying behind the more radical views of women’s liberation, local and national groups of older, more privileged women seemed to prioritize political power.

 “In Texas, when Anglo women decided not to give minority women equal status within the National Women’s Political Caucus — when minority women were over a big majority of the feminist movement throughout the nation — then I knew it wasn’t going to last,” Cotera says disappointedly. “They marginalized radical women, they marginalized minority women and they focused on power over everything. When you’re focused on that, you don’t last. You don’t build institutions.”

Latino students protesting outside of the Main Building on the University of Texas campus, January 1972. Photo by Marlon Taylor, Prints and Photographs Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Things began to fall apart on the national level as women of color challenged the idea that white, heterosexual women represented universal womanhood.

“If Betty Friedan says, ‘Let’s all go leave our homes and work,’ that’s great, but who’s going to take care of Betty Friedan’s children?” That question is posed by Lisa B. Thompson, a UT Austin associate professor of African and African diaspora studies and women’s and gender studies. She points out the reality of white, middle-class, married women going out and bringing “another white income into the home while paying a woman of color to take care of their kids and clean their house,” adding that the lowest-paid women are those working in child care.

“IT’S A DEEPER SHADE OF FEMINISM. MY CULTURE IS THE LENS THROUGH WHICH I SEE FEMINISM.” –Lisa B. Thompson

“How does your feminism take into account those differences?” she asks. “That’s something we have to change — those who have the blow horn need to use it to amplify the issues of minority of underrepresented women and girls.”

Even before the women’s liberation movement, the suffragists faced their own battles along sectarian lines.

“When people see these images of white women in their white Victorian dresses with their lavender sashes in front of the White House, they get the idea that the suffrage movement was a white women’s movement,” Green says. “But black women were suffragists too.”

A civil rights protester demonstrating in Austin with a sign using President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s initials, which reads, “Let’s Begin Justice in Austin!” 1964. Photo by Texas Student Publications Photographs, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Green offers an example of the first big suffrage march on Washington, D.C., in 1913 when organizers decided to appease southern white women by directing black women to march in the back. But Ida B. Wells, a crusader against lynching at the time, wouldn’t have it and ultimately stepped in line with the Illinois contingent during the march, Green says. Others joined in.

“Every movement has its contradictions,” Green explains. “There’s not a movement where suddenly you’ve reached the pinnacle and everything is important. There’s always this working out of history and clashing ideas even within movements.”

Hines recalls debates within their campus groups about race and class and whether a person of color should be aligned with the black liberation struggle or the women’s liberation struggle, admitting that much of the national movement centered on organized groups of white women.

“We didn’t really have that term of “white privilege” or perspective of looking at what we take for granted, or what is so engrained in how things work, or the myriad of experiences, of steps ahead, or advantages you have as a white person in our society,” Hines says. White privilege wasn’t defined until the 1980s when people began to understand and define the inner workings of systemic oppression.

Coming Together

In 1989, Kimbrelé Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles, introduced her theory of intersectionality.

“If a black woman was being discriminated against, the law was asking her, ‘Were you being discriminated against as a black person or as a woman?’ It’s both,” Thompson says. “Intersectionality is taking into account my race, my gender, my class, my sexuality.”

Martha Cotera, April 2018. Photo by Sarah Lim.

The theory built on the idea of being a “womanist,” a term introduced by Alice Walker in her book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden. Walker writes: “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.”

“It’s a deeper shade of feminism. My culture is the lens through which I see feminism,” Thompson says. “And another way black feminists are intervening is by pushing others to ask themselves, ‘What are your concerns as a mother?’”

Martha and Juan Cotera packing up books for their move to Mercedes, Texas, in 1970, where they helped found Jacinto Trevino College. Photo courtesy of Martha Cotera.

Black activist pioneers such as Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells — who were involved with anti-lynching campaigns — were fighting a women’s issue, she explains. “Some people will say lynching is a race issue, but if you’re a mother, and you’re giving birth to someone who is going to be lynched, it’s a woman’s issue.” That is why it is important for women activists today to rally behind the Black Lives Matter movement and work to end police brutality, adds Thompson.

“Police brutality toward both men and women is an issue that runs through a lot of 20th century American history, particularly when there was so much movement from rural areas into the cities,” Green says. “It became an important part of history that angered black communities and affected mainstream politics.”

She says today it is important to ask what’s new and what’s not new. “The violence isn’t new, but having a national movement and a reaction to a national movement — that is new.”

In organizing the 2017 Women’s March on Washington after the election of President Donald Trump, people feared history might repeat itself and upper-middle-class white women would again hold the reigns. “Same old, same old,” some criticized.

“THEY MARGINALIZED RADICAL WOMEN, THEY MARGINALIZED MINORITY WOMEN AND THEY FOCUSED ON POWER OVER EVERYTHING.” –Martha Cotera

“Ultimately, the people organizing it recognized it was so important for people to come together. And the march changed,” Green says. Protecting civil rights and taking a stand to end  violence were two of the eight unity principles outlined by the women’s march committee, which was made up of African Americans, Latinas, Muslims and whites.

The march became the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, with more than 4 million people participating in 653 marches across the country. It was followed later in the year by the unprecedented and viral #MeToo movement, a cry echoed by millions in 85 countries to end sexual harassment and violence.

Agents of Change

Although the numbers are impressive, it still doesn’t paint a true picture of womanhood in the U.S., Thompson says, pointing out that black women voted for Hillary Clinton at 92 percent, while more than half of white female voters voted for Trump.

“A friend of mine created T-shirts that say, ‘Vote like a black woman’ because she believes that black women are the only ones consistently voting in the best interests of the country,” Thompson says. “Who’s supporting progressive causes? Black women are. White women need to have a conversation across their own community — talk to their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces — that is what is going to make the biggest difference. That’s the real hard labor. It’s easy to march at the rally with a sign and wearing a pussy hat.”

A little girl offering a peace sign to anti-Vietnam War demonstrators during a march in Austin, circa 1968-1972. Photo by Tom Lankes/American-Statesman, Prints and Photographs Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Movements are about values, most of which are instilled in people by their families, their homes and their schools. Activism is a natural progression that stems from that, Cotera says.

“When I was in school, we actually had civics classes. I was taught that if you are in a political space, then you have to respect that space and be the best you could be — in other words, citizenship,” Cotera says. “They’re not teaching that anymore. I don’t know if it’s a plan to develop uninterested and uninvolved citizens or what, but I was raised to be extremely aware of your responsibilities as a citizen, and I just don’t see that anymore.”

Like schools, youth organizations such as the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Campfire Girls, 4H and the Y organizations also fostered good citizenship, but involvement in those organizations is on the decline, says UT Austin anthropologist and women’s and gender studies professor Pauline Strong.

“One way of creating change is to develop young people to think of new possibilities and think of themselves as having the ability to create new possibilities,” says Strong, who is also the director of UT’s Humanities Institute. “So, in between these organizations and changes in the future are the young people who are being socialized as agents of change.”

Since the 1960s, the Girl Scouts, in particular, put a strong emphasis on developing female leaders. “They really do train young people to gradually take leadership roles themselves. So, there’s a lot of planning things by the youth themselves, and I think that’s a really good model,” she says.

“WE BECAME ADDICTED TO THE CONCEPT THAT WE COULD CHANGE THINGS, AND WHEN YOU INJECT THAT INTO PEOPLE, IT’S MAGICAL AND BUOYANT.” -Alice Embree

But Strong worries that this model is hard to come across outside of these organizations, suggesting that there’s much more — and perhaps too much — play structured by adults and that many youth leadership roles have the character of “a sort of play-acting thing.”

“It has to be real,” Strong says. “There have to be roles for young people to really make decisions. They have to have the opportunity to make a mistake.”

Strong believes youth organizations are well equipped to address some of today’s most pressing issues: “Youth organizations do try to get kids into challenging environments outside. They try to introduce kids to those who are different than themselves and provide strong role models, who are both adults and older youth.”

Most importantly, these organizations provide young people with a community within which they can learn, grow and create change together. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that young people can be the most important agents for change.

Just as Cotera, Embree and Hines came into activism through the injustices they had witnessed in the world around them, so too will future generations.

“We became addicted to the concept that we could change things, and when you inject that into people, it’s magical and buoyant,” Embree says. “Coming together with people can be transformational, and I think that what we’re seeing today will work its way through changing this country.”

 

Recommended Reading: 

Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical
Basic Books, Dec. 2017
By Jacqueline Jones, chair and professor, Department of History

 

 

 

Celebrating the Rag: Austin’s Iconic Underground Newspaper
New Journalism Project, Oct. 2016
By Alice Embree, alumna, Department of Anthropology (’82); Thorne Dreyer and Richard Croxdale

 

 

 

The Chicana Feminist
Information Systems Development, June 1977
By Martha P. Cotera

 

 

 

Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class
University of Illinois Press, Aug. 2009
By Lisa B. Thompson, associate professor, Department of African and African Diaspora Studies

 

 

 

ILLUSTRATIONS BY AMRITA MARINO
PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY BY SARAH LIM
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Living in a Material World: Philosopher Galen Strawson tackles a few of life’s nagging questions http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2018/07/living-in-a-material-world-philosopher-galen-strawson-tackles-a-few-of-lifes-nagging-questions/ Mon, 02 Jul 2018 22:53:47 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=14281 Writer and actor Stephen Fry says Galen Strawson “opens windows and finds light-switches like no other philosopher writing today,” and novelist Ian McEwan simply dubs Strawson “one of the cleverest men alive.” High praise for this UT professor of philosophy, who discusses his latest book, Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, The Self, Etc. with Life & Letters editor Michelle Bryant.

How did you come up with the title?
I came up with it as soon as I was asked for a title, without reflection, and sent it to Edwin (Edwin Frank, editor of the New York Review of Books) half as a joke, although it was an accurate description of the contents of the book.

What do you hope the readers will take away from your new book?
If one is a philosopher, one can easily find oneself spending most of one’s time trying to correct false views. Some of them are wildly false. I think it’s worthwhile to let people know that some philosophers were mad enough to deny the existence of consciousness (This is the subject of Chapter 6, “The Silliest Claim”). Sometimes philosophy is a bit like public life, in which “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect” (as Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710).

I think it’s also particularly worthwhile to put the case against the “narrativist” orthodoxy, the view that we all live our lives in a narrative fashion and ought to do so (the subject of Chapters 2 and 8, “A Fallacy of Our Age” and “The Unstoried Life”). It’s just not true that everyone is like this. It’s not true that everyone ought to live like this, and I think it’s helpful to point out that there are other good ways to live.

If you wrote the first essay in 1995 and the last in 2016, do you still agree with your past work? Are there beliefs that you have written about that have shifted or strengthened over time?
 Here you’re picking up on something I talk about in the book — the fact that when I think about myself as I am now, I don’t feel any strong connection to my own past, although I am of course perfectly well aware that Galen Strawson, “GS,” the biological human being that I am, has a past. On the whole, my views have changed very little if at all. The only change that I can think of is something that I touch on only very briefly in the book (pages 169–173). It will seem crazy to some people, but I may as well report it here.

I’m a full-on materialist or physicalist, someone who thinks that everything in the universe is wholly physical. But I also know that consciousness — color experience, emotional feeling, pain, and so on — is real, because nothing in life is more obvious or more certain. I conclude, as I must, that consciousness, consciousness in all its stereo technicolor magnificence, is a wholly physical phenomenon. And that greatly deepens my intuitive understanding of something I already know intellectually: the fact that physics, for all its glory, can’t tell us much about the ultimate intrinsic nature of the stuff of the universe. In fact, it leads me to suspect that consciousness is — must be — among the fundamental properties of physical stuff.

Now for the change of view. I used to think, with the rest of the world, that physical substance, physical stuff, mass–energy, had to have some sort of entirely nonconscious aspect or being, in order to count as physical at all, even if it also had some sort of fundamental and irreducible conscious aspect. I no longer think that this is obvious. And certainly physics doesn’t support the view that physical stuff must have some entirely nonconscious aspect.

Some people will dismiss this as New Age piffle. Actually it’s genuinely hard-nosed physicalism. It’s what hard-nosed physicalism looks like when it really faces up to the evidence, the basic data — which includes all the phenomena of consciousness. “Outright physicalism,” as I say in the book, “is compatible with ‘panpsychism.’”

My favorite essay was “Luck Swallows Everything.” Even if we are not free agents, do you think it’s important for us to hold on to the belief that we are responsible, and if so, why?
Yes, I think it’s very important for us to hold on to the belief that we’re fully responsible for our actions, and I would worry if I thought that this is a belief we could easily lose. I don’t suppose Einstein lost his sense of being a responsible agent, even when he wrote, in a passage I quote in Things That Bother Me, that “if the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord on the strength of a resolution taken once and for all. … So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.”

If we don’t have free will, what is within our control?
Well, we’re free agents inasmuch as we’re often in a position to do what we want to do or think it right or best to do, and there’s a leading sense of “control” according to which our control of our actions is undiminished in the absence of radical free will. I’m inclined to quote Einstein again: “Schopenhauer’s saying, that ‘a man can do as he will, but not will as he will,’ has been an inspiration to me since my youth up, and a continual consolation and unfailing well-spring of patience in the face of the hardships of life, my own and others’. This feeling mercifully mitigates the sense of responsibility which so easily becomes paralysing, and it prevents us from taking ourselves and other people too seriously; it conduces to a view of life in which humour, above all, has its due place.”

Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, The Self, Etc.
New York Review Books, March 2018
By Galen Strawson, professor, Department of Philosophy

 

 

 

ILLUSTRATIONS BY ZACH MEYER
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A Right to the City http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/2018/07/a-right-to-the-city/ Mon, 02 Jul 2018 22:35:02 +0000 http://lifeandletters.la.utexas.edu/?p=14289 Just south of Manor Road on Airport Boulevard, there’s a dimly lighted blues club where new and old East Austin meet.

There, at the Skylark Lounge, local African American piano icon Margaret Wright plays happy hour on Thursday and Friday nights, giving city newcomers a taste of the bygone culture that once engulfed Austin’s eastern neighborhoods.

The club’s location was once the Airport Bar & Grill, an African American bar catering to the east side’s once most prominent demographic due to the creation of “Negro District” in 1928 amid Jim Crow.

But today, the area appears starkly different as gentrification bulldozes through the streets of East Austin, economically choking out long-term residents who are left with no choice but to uproot and relocate to more affordable suburbs and isolating those who chose to stay from the community they once knew.

“African Americans who were previously so singularly confined to East Austin became singularly displaced by gentrification,” says Eric Tang, a UT Austin associate professor of African and African diaspora studies and a researcher in the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis.

Tang began studying the effects of Austin’s rapid development on minority populations after moving from Chicago in 2010, finding that Austin was the only fast-growing major city in the United States to show a decline in African Americans between 2000 and 2010. He has since completed a three-part study on the impact of gentrification on current and former residents of Austin’s east side.

“I couldn’t believe no one had studied this before,” Tang says. The first piece of his study’s series documented how between 2000 and 2010, East Austin’s white population increased by 442 percent, the black population decreased by 66 percent and the Latino population decreased by 33 percent.

“Few people have been able to hang on, and they aren’t hanging on because the changes are beneficial. Rather, they’re hanging on because they feel a responsibility to black and brown East Austin — a right to the city,” Tang says.

In the third and final installment to the three-part study, Tang and Bisola Falola, an East Avenue researcher and UT Austin geography and the environment alumna, interviewed long-term East Austin residents who chose to stay. And although most held negative views of their neighborhoods’ rapid development and raising property taxes, respondents felt change had delivered its deepest blow to their sense of community. Perhaps most telling of that was the decline in the number of children.

“Children are the glue or the common thread that hold a community together, bringing vibrancy and visibility to the neighborhood,” Tang says, adding that children once accounted for 30 percent of the neighborhoods’ population but now make up less than 12 percent.

As gentrification began, families were the first to leave, seeking economic relief and better schools, Tang explains. In their place, passers-by walk their dogs where children once played, engaging with their pets more than with their neighbors.

“Most people are white. They spend the whole day walking the dogs. They don’t have kids — they have dogs,” says an 87-year-old African American female respondent whom researchers interviewed.

And although recent developments have led to new restaurants, businesses, supermarkets and parks in the area, more than 90 percent of long-term residents Tang interviewed said they didn’t patronize most new businesses because they are either uninterested or feel unwelcomed. Some respondents even feel as if their new neighbors would rather they just disappear or accept one of the many insultingly low offers on their homes from aggressive investors.

“East Austin has been resilient through segregation, civil rights, desegregation, urban renewal, the drug epidemics of the ’80’s and ’90’s, and the rezoning and redevelopment of downtown,” Tang says. “The people who stayed reflect that very sense of resilience that once encompassed all of black East Austin. As a city, we should be doing more to address these issues of race and culture that profoundly and disproportionately impact our whole community.”

ILLUSTRATION BY MICHELLE KONDRICH
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