The Echo of History & The BlacKkKlansman

Amidst the cultural events on the UMF campus, the New Commons Project has been off to a radical start this spring. Beginning with lectures on hip hop and Kendrick Lamar’s latest album Damn to most recently with a screening of BlacKkKlansman this past Friday, February 8. Focusing on cultural events having to do with race and racial equality, the New Commons Project followed the BlacKkKlansman screening on Friday night with a symposium day of lectures on Saturday, February 9.

Directed by Spike Lee, the BlacKkKlansman came out in 2018 and is based off of a true story which was originally a memoir written by Ronell Eugene Stallworth that was published in 2014. Stallworth wrote this memoir based on his experience working as a cop for the Colorado Springs Police department in the 1970s.

Lincoln Auditorium in the Roberts Learning Center was packed on Friday night with only a handful of empty seats. The main character in the film, Ron Stallworth, is a young African American that joins the Colorado Springs Police Department to infiltrate the local KKK chapter. In the film, Stallworth’s actions and interactions with the KKK chapter are a wonderful paradox. First, Stallworth calls the chapter on the phone to pretend to be interested in becoming a member and then is partnered with a fellow cop, who is white to be the white Stallworth that interacts with the KKK in person. It isn’t until the end of the film that David Duke, the KKK leader, learns that Ron Stallworth is in fact African American. No one knew that he was black because of his white partner — Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver — and all of the KKK members began to accept him and eventually nominated him to be one of their leaders.

Ron Stallworth’s two-part character presents us with the ultimate racial duality or double consciousness. Firstly, Stallworth’s character is an African American in a mostly caucasian police department. Secondly, Stallworth risks his life and his partner’s life (character, Flip Zimmerman) by pretending to join the KKK in order to learn more about the violent and racist organization.

The film screening was followed with a panel discussion with several professors from UMF and our partner University of Le Mans, France. UMF faculty Sarah Maline, Associate Professor of Art History; Andre Siamundele, Assistant Professor of French; and Michael Schoeppner, Assistant Professor of History were led in discussion by UMF’s Libra Scholar Delphine Letort. Professor Letort is visiting UMF from Le Mans University. The panel members shared their thoughts on the film. Professor Letort commented on how Spike Lee reversed the message of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation of white people being afraid of black people to the reality that it is black people that are more rightfully afraid of white people. UMF’s Professor Schoeppner was really taken aback by the film and shared with the audience his observation that “history doesn’t repeat itself, it echoes.”

This idea of history echoing itself was brought up again in Saturday’s symposium. Audience members of students and faculty talked about how violence against race keeps on happening, why it keeps happening, and what we can do about it. It was agreed by many that there is no immediate or sole solution, that there is no one film or work of art that can change the world, no matter how moving it may be. The change is with the people and the people — us, me, and you — need to keep the conversation going. Talking about racial injustice issues in academics and in our everyday lives will help to keep replacing ignorance and fear with education and open-mindedness.

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Some Sentences From “Persuasion” – A New Commons Project Talk

RP101-0701Daniel Gunn, professor of English at UMF gave a talk last Wednesday December 5, 2018 in the Emery Community Arts Center on Some Sentences From ‘Persuasion’, a Jane Austen novel. This talk took the form of an academic reading journal of the profound intricacies that fascinate professor Gunn in Austen’s Persuasion. This talk was part of the Jane Austen series put on by the New Commons Project.

Kristen Case, associate professor of English and colleague to professor Gunn, prefaced the audience for what they were about to experience. Professor Case described professor Gunn’s investigatory research as slow, quiet, and “attentive to really understand the meaning of another’s words and sentences.” It is not every day that one pays such meticulous attention to the functionality of another’s writing. Professor Gunn is truly “Austen’s ideal reader,” affirmed professor Case.

It is the language at the sentence level in Persuasion that fascinates professor Gunn. His unusual, experimental readings of individual sentences captivated the audience in the Emery last Wednesday as professor Gunn took us all on a journey through his mind of the inner workings of Austen’s language. Gunn spoke with such passion and excitement as he shared his discoveries with us. “The narrator’s voice is not always the narrator’s” and “the withholding of the last phrase of the sentence is powerful” in select sentences throughout the Austen novel.

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If there is a heaven, Austen would have been smiling down upon professor Gunn last Wednesday. Among linguistic and grammatical investigation, there was also immense praise of Austen’s genius on Gunn’s behalf. He claims that her “arrangement [of syntactical elements] as brilliant” and the “sequences of phrases as ironic.”  One such example: … a dead young lady, nay, two dead ladies, for it proved twice as fine as the first report, gives the notion that Persuasion is “Austen’s saddest novel,” claimed Gunn. He also believes that the work is “a reminder of how precise Austen is to the natural world.”

Gunn delivered his discoveries with passionate understanding and appreciation of Austen’s technique. He continues to dissect her sentences, looking for more meaning, that Gunn knows is there, awaiting to be unpacked. At the conclusion of his presentation, professor Gunn called “the novel itself a ‘tender sonnet’ with a sense of loss.”

IMG_5869Upon hearing the enthusiasm in professor Gunn’s talk and learning about the profound inner workings of Austen, I felt a deep need to acquire a copy of Persuasion and save it for the day when I can read and experience for myself the inner workings of Austen’s genius.

Professor Gunn’s deciphering of thirteen select sentences from Jane Austen’s Persuasion can’t help but excite the mind of the listener. We discovered, with and through professor Gunn, the relevance and significance of Austen’s inner workings, truly a rare event.

For more information on upcoming New Commons Project events, please click here.

Art As Understanding of Social Change

David Ross, an artist, an intellectual, and art curator came to UMF on September 26 to give a talk about art and social change.

 Coolest bar in town! Ross, never a bar guy, is a regular at  Dogwood  in Beacon, NY. The only bar he ever liked. And definitely a fav of mine. (https://www.upstatediary.com/david-a-ross/)

The time we live in is a complicated but a fascinating one, and so has every other time been that came before this one. Ross asked us in the audience, “how have we recorded our time?” There are lots of books and scholarly sources that detail the events and movements of history, but did you ever think about art as a capsule into past and current times? Art is an artist’s way of understanding and comprehending the time we are in.

As a seasoned art curator and intellectual, Ross has come to a conclusion that, “art makes us think why we think what we think.” That’s a lot to unpack, let’s read that again. “Art makes us think why we think what we think,” about social change and about what the generation coming of age is going through. Art as a collective is a display of multifaceted and multimedia interpretations of the world around us. To create art, you must effectively stop, stare, think and finally, create an interpretation. Your interpretation.

Our fast paced culture has everyone missing out on the critical catharsis and contemplation of the times in which we live. Ross believes in the power of art museums “as places that talk about the idea of slowing down.” The act of going to an art museum — taking perhaps the better part of an afternoon, at least — to observe, absorb, and to think will provoke new thoughts and stimulate our minds to insights about our world.

Ross has done lots of observation and contemplation of his surroundings which has led him to believe that the “problem in our culture is the need for quiet, slow reflection.” In our current time, especially, is it important to document, reflect, and contemplate silently.

The individual conundrums which we all experience can be better understood by creating our own art. In this way, museums play a crucial role for the sanity of the people. Ross whole heartedly expressed that, “museums can effect change.” Museums as an “open forum among artists” provide space for us to “slow down” and evaluate and react to social change.

Do you have a message about our time? You do? Great! Put your message out there however you can. As Ross and many other thinkers have said, “art is art,” make it however and what you will, just make it meaningful.