Friday, October 21, 2016

Meeting Edward P. Jones at Old Ebbitt Grill

Edward P. Jones, Maryemma Graham, and Kenton Rambsy
By Kenton Rambsy

On June 24, 2016, I was in Washington D. C., and had the opportunity to meet Edward P. Jones, a writer I’ve studied for years now. My graduate school mentor and dissertation advisor Maryemma Graham arranged the meeting, and the three of us met at Old Ebbitt Grill’s happy hour.

After placing our orders, Jones described the route he took to the restaurant. His description stood out to me because just like his short stories, he paid keen attention to place-based details by describing streets he passed and specific bus routes.
Jones recalled a time when he saw a movie at the building where we were having dinner.

While Old Ebitt Grill is DC’s oldest bar and restaurant, it has only been located at 675 15th St NW since October 1983. While eating oysters, Jones described how frequently moving around in his childhood made him much more attuned to details about neighborhoods and boundaries. The mention of specific routes and locations during our conversation over dinner reminded me of the significance of place in his writings.

During the course of the dinner, I asked him about how DC’s changing landscape affected his stories. I also talked to him about specific routes he mentions in his stories and notable black landmarks across the district. He was quite responsive to my inquiries and listened to me discuss how I was using digital mapping tools to identify patterns among characters in his stories.

Relatively few literary scholars get the opportunity to meet authors who are central to their research. The chance to have dinner with a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist is even rarer. So I was especially grateful to spend an extended amount of time talking Washington D.C. and teaching black literature with Jones and Graham.

• A notebook on short stories

Place in the Writings of Edward P. Jones

By Kenton Rambsy

A dinner this past summer with Edward P. Jones reminded me about how important the notion of place, specifically Washington D.C. is, in his writing. In Lost in the City (1992) and All Aunt Hagar’s Children (2006), Jones writes stories about black people set across various, recurring locations in DC.

The geographic boundaries inform a variety of character traits in Jones’s fiction thereby offering a wide spectrum of stories dealing with black people interacting in recurring locales from different social classes and locales.

Take “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” for instance. The story follows an unnamed 24-year-old narrator recently back from the Korean War, restless with his life in the city. The narrator describes his surroundings with precision mentioning Dunbar High School, Kann’s Department Store, and Shiloh Baptist Church. The narrator reveals an intimate connection with Washington, especially the city’s majority black Northwest quadrant. Through meticulous descriptions and references to landmarks, there is a symbiotic relationship where the setting and protagonist complement, if not make one another.

Explorations of places through D.C.’s Northwest quadrant appear throughout Jones’s stories, including “A Rich Man,” “Old Boys, Old Girls” and “Bad Neighbors,” to name a few. For Jones, short stories provide an opportunity to plot diverse casts of black characters across various geographic locations in DC.

Despite the long history and dense population of African Americans living in or near the nation’s capital, the predominately black quadrants of Washington D.C., have a relatively small presence in literary studies. Thus, I’m looking forward to researching and writing more about Jones’s works, which do quite a bit to place D.C. on the map, so to speak.

A notebook on short stories

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Eugene B. Redmond visits the Redmond class

Eugene B. Redmond speaks with SIUE students and guests
Yesterday for our co-taught course "Culture, Politics, and the Redmond Collection," Professor Andrew Theising and I hosted a poetry reading featuring none other than Eugene B. Redmond. It was a really lively, beyond-the-classroom event.

Theising and I spent the first two months of the semester discussing Redmond, his career, East St. Louis and regional history and politics, and the EBR Collection with students in our class. So we were pleased to finally get the chance to introduce Redmond to the class and various visitors from the community.

The reading took place in the Friends Corner of Lovejoy Library. Redmond read poems, which had been published from across the course of his decades long career. He also discussed his upbringing in East St. Louis and his many travels. He also encouraged the students to pose for a group picture.

• Culture, Politics & the Redmond Collection

Reflections: The Best American Science and Nature Writing

[The Best American Science and Nature Writing]

In the past for the Haley Reading groups, we've covered books on business, poetry, social justice, and technology. This semester, we've moved in a different direction by reading articles from The Best American Science and Nature Writing (2015).

For now, we wanted to consider the possibility that we would all take up the practice of writing about science or nature. If you were tasked with the responsibility of using one of the essays you've read as a point of departure or as a kind muse, what would you write about? Keep in mind that you'd be in the role of science or nature writer.

And, which article -- “The Health Effects of a World Without Darkness," "No Risky Chances," “The Deepest Dig," “At Risk," or “Desegregating Wilderness," -- would serve as the basis for your article? Why that article?

Monday, October 17, 2016

William J. Harris, Bob Dylan, Jay Z & Secondary Literature

By Kenton Rambsy and Howard Rambsy II
"People see me all the time
And they just can't remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas
Images and distorted facts" --from "Idiot Wind" by Bob Dylan

"I’m in Cuba, I love Cubans
This communist talk is so confusing
When it’s from China, the very mic that I’m using
Idiot wind, the Bob Dylan of rap music
You're an idiot, baby, you should become a student" --from "Open Letter" by Jay Z
Of all the news that emerged after the announcement that Bob Dylan earned the Nobel Prize for Literature, we were particularly intrigued by a discovery related to our professor, William J. Harris.

Harris recently shared an excerpt from a short article that he published on Dylan, which appeared in Mad River Review in 1967. The excerpt reads:
His career as a poet of real consequence did not begin until ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ Before this song-poem, he was more a writer of lyrics than a poet. But with it, and the album Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan has become the first important American poet since Ginsberg."
In their notations on Dylan, the Nobel committee observed that the songwriter has been the “object of a steady stream of secondary literature.” Harris’s review was an early contributor to that commentary and critical discourse on Dylan.

Beyond the classroom, we’d always known Professor Harris as one of the early, important scholars on the work of Amiri Baraka. But who knew that he also preceded the Nobel committee by 49 years as a strong advocate for Dylan as poet?

For some time now, we’ve been focusing on Jay Z. Recently, we’ve taught African American literature courses focusing on the rapper. We have examined the storytelling techniques and literary devices Jay Z uses across his 12 solo studio albums. We have placed his rhymes in concert with autobiographical and semi-autobiographical stories about black male characters in narratives by Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and others.

We have also started an extensive data collection project on Jay Z’s song lyrics, collaborators, album sales, and album structures. Our courses and projects highlight the interplay between album content and production characteristics.

Covering Jay Z in this manner helps us to combine and develop our interests in verbal art, data science, African American artistic culture. Also, our continued projects on Jay Z allows us to think about his work and perhaps even rap music in alternative ways.

Coming across Professor Harris’s early work on Dylan validated our ongoing projects on Jay Z, and our efforts to situate rap lyrics within the realm of African American literary studies.

A Notebook on Jay Z

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Students view postcards from the Andrew J. Theising Research Collection

The Andrew J. Theising Research Collection contains a diverse assortment of items concerning East St. Louis, including approximately 339 postcards focusing on the city. Dozens of additional postcards in the Theising Collection concentrate on Granite City, Cahokia, and other places.

In the mid-1990s while pursuing research on East St. Louis, Theising, an avid collector, noticed a variety of photographs, historic documents, maps, postcards, and artifacts related to the city on eBay.

The postcards enhanced his view of East St. Louis. “I noticed how the old images,” observed Theising, “helped explain some of the issues I was trying to convey with my research.”

Student viewing samples of (enlarged) East St. Louis postcards.

Theising spent approximately $10,000.00, over the course of 10 years collecting East St. Louis materials. Those materials formed the basis of his book Made in USA: East St. Louis (2003). In the year that his book was published, Theising donated all of his East St. Louis materials to SIUE’s library.

On Thursday, October 6, and Tuesday, October 11, I coordinated a small showing of postcards from the Theising Collection in the Eugene B. Redmond Learning Center at Lovejoy Library. I had several of the postcards enlarged so that students could take a look at how East St. Louis was presented in the historical images.

• Notebook on the EBR Collection & EBR Learning Center
• Re-discovering St. Paul's Episcopal Church in the Theising Collection
• Culture, Politics & the Redmond Collection

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Black Student Union: chalking about anti-black violence


The Black Student Union (BSU) has been having ongoing conversations about the murder of black men and women as a result of police violence. We were recently talking about how to express our concerns beyond small meetings (I serve as the advisor for the group). Last night, BSU organized a chalking event on campus, where they drew outlines and provided hashtags like "#IAmMikeBrown" and "#IamSandraBland."

A few images.

Silent March at SIUE 2016
Smarter Than You Think -- from book title to political statement 
3,600 seconds before a silent march at SIUE
Silent March at SIUE 2015

Haley Reading Group: Jourdan Imani Keith’s “At Risk” and “Desegregating Wilderness”

Cynthia A. Campbell and Howard Rambsy II

[Best American Science and Nature Writing]

Jourdan Imani Keith’s article “At Risk” focuses the term “at risk” as it applies to humans, endangered species (chinook salmon), and the ecosystem. Keith’s article “Desegregating Wilderness” highlights the contrast of the Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act.

In “At Risk,” Keith highlights the intersectional identity of being “at risk” as it pertains to race, gender, endangered species and physical location. The article speaks to the “at risk” label—protection or limitation/judgment. Keith notes that “Protecting an endangered species means changing the practices in an entire ecosystem to safeguard their survival” (150). This point indicates the dangers of ignoring the destruction of the ecosystem whether through climate change or ineffective safety precautions.

In “Desegregating Wilderness,” Keith illustrates the types of inequities associated with access to wilderness areas. The article addresses the problematic issues of the Wilderness Act. At one point, Keith notes that “people accessing recreation in the wilderness are still predominately white, and de facto segregation exists instead of a legal one” (152). This point indicates that divisiveness is associated with the lack of access.

After reading both articles, which one did you find most useful? Why?