Follow by Email

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Wealth and Poverty in NYC

Breaking from
Hurricane Sandy Spotlights Income Inequality
By David Rohde
A hotel bellman said he was worried about his mother uptown. A maid said she had been calling her family in Queens. A garage attendant said he hadn’t been able to contact his only relative – a sister in New Jersey – since the storm hit. Asked where he weathered the hurricane, his answer was simple.
“I slept in my car,” he said.
Sandy humbled every one of the 19 million people in the New York City metropolitan area. But it humbled some more than others in an increasingly economically divided city.
Editor's Notes:
Coronary Heart Disease: 5 Tips to Reduce Your Risk
Tiny Loophole Found in IRS Tax Code Could Pay $87,500
Hours before the storm arrived on Monday night, restaurants, corner grocery stores and hotels were open in the Union Square area of Manhattan. (My wife and I moved to a hotel there after being ordered to evacuate our apartment in lower Manhattan.) Instead of heading home to their families as the winds picked up, the city’s army of cashiers, waiters and other service workers remained in place.
Divides between the rich and the poor are nothing new in New York, but the storm brought them vividly to the surface. There were residents like me who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not.
Those with a car could flee. Those with wealth could move into a hotel. Those with steady jobs could decline to come into work. But the city’s cooks, doormen, maintenance men, taxi drivers and maids left their loved ones at home.
New census data shows that the city is the most economically divided it has been in a decade, according to The New York Times. As has occurred across the country, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Twenty-one percent of the city is in poverty, and the median household income decreased by $821 annually. Per the Times: “Median income for the lowest fifth was $8,844, down $463 from 2010. For the highest, it was $223,285, up $1,919.”
Manhattan, the city’s wealthiest and most gentrified borough, is an extreme example. Inequality here rivals parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Last year the wealthiest 20 percent of Manhattan residents made $391,022 a year on average, according to census data. The poorest 20 percent made $9,681.
All told, Manhattan’s richest fifth made 40 times more money than its poorest fifth, up from 38 times in 2010. Only a handful of developing countries – such as Namibia and Sierra Leone – have higher inequality rates.
In the Union Square area, New York’s privileged – including myself – could have dinner, order a food delivery and pick up supplies an hour or two before Sandy made landfall. The cooks, cashiers and hotel workers who stayed at work instead of rushing home made that possible.
They were a diverse group. Some were young people in their 20s. Others were middle-aged Americans who had never landed white-collar jobs. Most were immigrants.
On the other end of the wealth spectrum, New York’s age-old excesses emerged. Some families brought their nannies to the hotel to help care for their children through the hurricane. Others panicked when the power went off. All the while, waiters, maids and doormen continued to help them.
The storm affected the affluent as well. Tourists and business people from Boston, California, Britain and Japan were stranded in our hotel. They found themselves without power, water or transportation, and completely at the mercy of strangers.
But the city’s heroes were the tens of thousands of policemen, firefighters, utility workers and paramedics who labored all night for $40,000 to $90,000 a year. And the local politicians who focused on performance, not partisanship, such as New Jersey Gove. Chris Christie, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Newark Mayor Corey Booker.
Twenty-four hours after the disaster, ugly political lines were already being drawn. Democrats pounced on a statement by Mitt Romney in a Republican primary debate last year that disaster response should be shifted to the states and, where possible, privatized. Michael Brown, the much criticized director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under George W. Bush, argued that the Obama administration had responded more quickly to Hurricane Sandy than it did to the terrorist attack in Benghazi.
“One thing he’s gonna be asked is, why did he jump on this so quickly and go back to D.C. so quickly when in … Benghazi, he went to Las Vegas?” Brown was quoted as saying to a Denver alternative newspaper. “This is like the inverse of Benghazi.”
Over the next few days, Obama’s and Romney’s reactions to the storm will be parsed. The role of the federal government in covering the costs of the disaster will be praised and assailed. Politicians, as always, will jockey for advantage.
The storm showed many things about New York. It exposed the city’s vulnerabilities. It also displayed its strengths. And to me, it showed New York’s growing economic divide. I’m sure that many of the people who remained at work yesterday chose to do so voluntarily. But I fear that many of them did not.
(David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times.)
© 2012 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

Alas, Poor Phillis

A Real Harvard Man: Phillis Wheatley

A Real Harvard Man: Phillis Wheatley 1
Dave Cutler for The Chronicle
Enlarge Image
closeA Real Harvard Man: Phillis Wheatley 1
Dave Cutler for The Chronicle
Good Silences, Bad Silences, Unforgivable Silences
Dave Cutler for the Chronicle
In 2003, the distinguished African-American-studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. published The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters With the Founding Fathers. In that thin but thought-provoking volume, Gates speculated about the connection between Wheatley and graduates of Harvard University, an institution already some 125 years old by the time the enslaved girl was carried on a slave ship from Senegal to Boston circa 1761.
Purchased when she was still a child, Phillis was schooled in the classics by Mrs. Susanna Wheatley's daughter, Mary. So gifted a student was Phillis that she was soon turning out remarkable poems, such as her paean "To The University Of Cambridge, In New-England," in which she urged Harvard students to avoid sin.
White colonials were skeptical that Wheatley, a slave, had the ability to turn out such learned verse, so they brought her in 1772 to a panel of New England dignitaries, who subjected her to the equivalent of a doctoral examination to prove to the world that she was not a fraud. When the white men completed their examination of the young black woman, they drafted an attestation to her genius that would soon appear as the preface to her first volume of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
As I read that volume when I was a first-year graduate student at Harvard, my intellectual love affair with Phillis Wheatley began. Curious about the men who had attested to her genius, I wrote a seminar paper about their testimony. A few years later, on the occasion of Harvard's 350th anniversary, in 1986, I joined in an editing project that culminated in Blacks at Harvard (New York University Press, 1993), a scholarly collection that included Wheatley.
One wonders what Wheatley, were she able to return to Harvard some 240 years after she was claimed as legitimately learned, would make of an institution so changed. With the exception of a few 18th-century buildings still encircling Harvard Yard, the campus would look alien to her. If she were to walk into the buildings erected long after her death, however, she would find a well-worn trail of intellectual achievement left by the now large number of African-Americans who have passed through Harvard's libraries, classrooms, and departments.
Outside the door to the African- and African-American-studies department, Wheatley would come upon a bust of the university's first black Ph.D., W.E.B. Du Bois. Walking past his cerebral gaze, she would find not only Du Bois's modern counterpart, Professor Gates, but leading black scholars such as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, chair of the department. Inside University Hall, she would find an African-American woman, Evelynn M. Hammonds, serving as dean of Harvard College. And in the offices of the Harvard Law Review, she would learn of its first black president, Barack Obama. If the Harvard campus were a palimpsest, Wheatley would find narrative on top of narrative, each one contributing to the rich history of an institution strengthened and shaped by its black graduates.
Her portrait belongs among those of the white men in the Harvard Faculty Club.
There is, however, one building in which she would detect, at least in the portraits that adorn its walls, no African-American presence: the Harvard Faculty Club. In her day, there was, of course, no such thing, although the club's neo-Georgian architecture mimics that of Wheatley's century. It is ironic that the impetus in 1931 for turning Henry and William James's former home into an all-male club came from Abbott Lawrence Lowell, a Harvard president whose racism was notorious. It was Lowell who attempted to bar African-Americans from the Yard dormitories in the early 1920s, and to limit the number of Jews enrolled. While both Harvard and its faculty club are now diverse institutions, open to all, the club's portraiture remains a study in filiopietism. On the walls, Wheatley would find portraits aplenty of New England clergymen but none of African-American men or women.
Decades ago, I was made painfully aware of the "dead white men" on the club's walls when I invited a brilliant Harvard College undergraduate from the rural South to have lunch with me at the club.
My invitation followed a painful moment in a class I was team-teaching. All of the students except this young man were white and from exclusive high schools. While the entire class had a keen interest in African-American literature, a crisis unfolded when we read Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. A student from New York volunteered to read from an additional chapter she had written in high school. Alas, the student's chapter was written in dialect that sounded all wrong coming out of a white person's mouth. The African-American student erupted, offering a moving account of the slights he believed he had been suffering from his classmates. The author of the chapter began to cry. A second white student accused of racism soon joined her. Horrified, my teaching colleague and I looked at each other across the seminar table: We knew we had healing work to do.
The next day was when I took the African-American student to lunch at the Harvard Faculty Club. As I walked into the main dining room with this young man, whose pain was palpable, I saw with new eyes the portraits of white New England clergy. Abolitionists or not, they seemed to stare at us from every wall.
While the students in that class, one of the best classes I have ever taught, made beautiful peace with one another, I am, decades later, still searching for Phillis Wheatley at Harvard. Thus the real purpose of this article, which might have been subtitled, "An Open Letter to Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University":
Dear President Faust,
Would you—the first woman to serve as president of Harvard and the same conscience-driven 9-year-old who, in 1957, wrote a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower decrying segregation—please commission an oil portrait of Phillis Wheatley to hang in the Harvard Faculty Club? The artist you select would have for inspiration only the one portrait of Wheatley that was drawn from life, but that image, an engraving that accompanies her 1773 book, is remarkable. Depicted quill in hand, Wheatley is there the model of a Harvard scholar.
If only Wheatley, once the portrait were complete, could join you at the faculty club for its unveiling! I imagine that the two of you, who have so much in common, would like each other immediately. Even when the two of you were young, neither of you ever hesitated to share your views with and of men in high places. I think of Wheatley's 1775 poem "To His Excellency General Washington," or of your letter to Ike, in which you wrote, "Please Mr. Eisenhower please try and have schools and other things accept colored people."
I could imagine Wheatley, given her lifetime of defying the intellectual expectations of the white men who surrounded her, and you, given your career as a historian studying slavery, meeting for tea at the Harvard Faculty Club. Afterward, you would take Ms. Wheatley into the Reading Room to show her the painting. She would lean her diminutive frame toward it and find a plaque—and here is my final suggestion—with words that have taken too long to appear: "Phillis Wheatley (1753?-1784), Doctor of Philosophy, Honoris Causa, Harvard University, 2013."
Thomas A. Underwood is master lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University and an instructor in the Harvard University Division of Continuing Education.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Wright, Hurston, and Bad Blood

Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Bad Blood

Q:   I really want to read Richard Wright’s review of Their Eyes Were Watching God.  I wonder what caused the bad blood between him and Hurston.

A (1):  To read Wright’s review, access

There you will find the in-house review by Hurston’s publisher and reviews by George Stevens, Lucille Thompson, Sheila Hibben, Otis Ferguson, Sterling Brown, and Alain Locke.  Wright was not the only male who did not praise Hurston’s novel in 1937.

A (2):  As one result of American cultural games, the bad blood has been so magnified that what is a sub-atomic particle looks like a Siberian tiger.  In literary circles, one game is played by driving a contrived wedge between selected African American iconic figures.  The divisive action is formulaic.  Select two people ---let us say, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Terry McMillan and Toni Morrison, or Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.  Extract diametrically opposed quotations from each either in or out of context.  Magnify and distort the differences.  Claim the differences are symbolic of some more or less permanent fault line in the collective consciousness of a people, symbolic of a wailing wall of hate between the two people selected.  You do not have to provide proof, nor exercise the civility of waiting for an answer.

This very American game is replete with racialized ideological baggage.  It is marked by bad sociology, bad psychology, and bad history.  It is vicious.

Fortunately, we can speculate about the bad blood between Hurston and Wright outside the boundaries of this game as I have said in my unpublished essay “Hurston, Wright, and Literary History.”  In 1937, Wright published “Between Laughter and Tears,” a combined review of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Waters Turpin’s These Low Grounds in the October 5 issue of New Masses. Wright’s evaluation of both novels was less than favorable.  Hurston had an opportunity to repay Wright in kind when she reviewed Uncle Tom’s Children under the title “Stories in Conflict” in the April 2, 1938 issue of Saturday Review of Literature.  Hurston was less than pleased with Wright’s accomplishment.

Wright had been critical of Hurston’s sentimentality, her exploration of the human heart and love at the expense of ignoring any impact systemic racism might have had on the lives of her characters.  Hurston in turn was critical of Wright’s preoccupation with race hatred, his exploitation of “the wish-fulfillment theme,” and his apparent fidelity, as she informed her audience, to “the picture of the South that the communists have been passing around of late.”  Hurston was not sympathetic to the restrictions of thought implicit in Marxism American style.  Wright became disillusioned with those restrictions in the early 1940s.  But in 1937, Wright had no patience with Hurston’s “facile sensuality,” the structure of feelings that could be a portal to the realm of minstrelsy.  The difference between the two writers is grounded in ideological opposition, incompatible ideas about the function of literature or writing in life and the obligations of the writer.  Hurston and Wright had genuine reasons for concern about the effects of writing upon the minds of racially embattled readers.

Wright and Hurston were at once blunt and considerate in their attacks.  They were careful in deflecting attention from personality to writing, from content of character to matters of technical skill.  “Miss Hurston can write,” Richard Wright admitted.  He found, however, that her dialogue “manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their simplicity but that’s as far as it goes.”  Hurston did not catch the “complex simplicity” that Wright had called for in “Blueprint for Negro Writing.”  That is to say, she succeed in simplicity but missed “all the complexity, the strangeness, the magic wonder of life that plays like a bright sheen over the most sordid existence….”[ Blueprint, section 6: Social Consciousness and Responsibility]  Wright misread his own critical language and failed to see the sheen in Hurston’s novel.  At second glance, it is not Hurston’s romanticism that he is criticizing.  He is condemning her failure to link folklore with “the concepts that move and direct the forces of history today.” [Section 6]

Hurston complimented Wright by suggesting that “[s]ome of his sentences have the shocking-power of a forty-four,” a feature that confirmed for her that Wright “knows his way around among words.”  Nevertheless, she found his representation of dialect to be “a puzzling thing.”  How did he arrive at it?  “Certainly,” she proposed, “he does not write by ear unless he is tone-deaf.  But aside from the broken speech of his characters, the book contains some beautiful writing.”  What was not beautiful was Wright’s male-dominated subject matter.  “This is a book about hatreds. Mr. Wright,” according to Hurston, “serves notice by his title that he speaks of people in revolt, and his stories are so grim that the Dismal Swamp of race hatred must be where they live.  Not one act of understanding and sympathy comes to pass in the entire work.”  By way of hyperbole, Hurston found the violence of black life in Wright’s stories to be excessive. In contrast, her novel was a testament that violence and hatred in fiction should be tempered by civility, love, and compassion.

It is reasonable to propose the two reviews are gestures of respect.   There is some degree of balance between the two reviews if we attend to what might have been reality for Hurston and Wright and their readers. Wright and Hurston were playing literary politics, and their discourses had to be social and political.  They were writers writing about writing. Wright was conserving the radical tradition of black nationalism; Hurston was subverting the idea that a black writer had to be radical according to an “ism” that was alien to deep roots of folk wisdom.  Perhaps we can avoid exaggerating bad blood and focus on how speech acts properly contextualized show that distinctions between the aesthetic and the political can be exposed as the fictions that they are.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                                            PHBW A/Q BLOG

October 28, 2012

Letter to Charlie R. Braxon


October 30, 2012

Dear Charlie,

I close my eyes.  I am watching a memory movie.

You are a student at JSU.  I am a teacher at Tougaloo College, reading your early poems . “Charlie, you should not write poems about ladies with acquamarine eyes.”

It is 1985.  David Brian Williams, you, your best friend Greg  Jackson , and I are passionately watching Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It in the theater behind the VFW Post on Lynch Street.  Over hamburgers after the film, the four of us compete to find the words to say Spike Lee is the most brilliant black filmmaker ever.

You are not heavy.  You are my brother. I carry you in my arms up the stairs in Ballad Hall at Tougaloo to see a play David Brian Williams Is producing. “Don’t drop me, Doc,” you said.  I didn’t .  I never drop you.

You are at my apartment on the Tougaloo campus. “Charlie, you have to hear this.”  I put the LP of Ishmael Reed’s Conjure on the turntable.

It is October 14, 1988.  I sweat as I write the “Afterword” for Ascension from the Ashes. I am too much aware that Amiri Baraka is writing the “Preface.”  My soul is rested when you wrote in my copy of the book:

How do I thank you for all of your efforts to make me a better person?  How do I repay you for all of the many times you urged and inspired me to go beyond the stale “academic verse” of what was and ascend to the blues/Jazz/African aesthetic that is. Although I know this is /is not enough, thanks for being my brother  love Charlie R. Braxton

We are in Hattiesburg.  You had recently published my article “Reading Baldwin in a Time of War” in your newspaper The Informer.  Your son is riding on my shoulders as we cross a street to get pancakes.”Don’t drop me,” he said.  I laugh. “I won’t.”

Kevin Powell, C. Liegh McInnis, you and I are eating chicken at my house in Ridgeland and talking furiously about life, literature, Vibe and only the Lord can recall what else.

You are the youngest poet I publish in Trouble the Water: 250 Years of Black Poetry.

Slow fade past when your house burned but your prized painting by Radcliffe Bailey did not. Fade into your being a music critic, your writing truth about the music industry that can’t be published in the United States, that must be published in France as Gansta Gumbo –une anthologie du rap sudiste via Huston, Memphis,  Atlanta, Miami;  fade into my writing the introduction for Cinders Rekindled without sweating; fade into our being Mississippi brothers blessed to have known Virgie Brocks-Shedd and Nayo-Barbara Malcolm Watkins;  fade into our writing for our people because we have to write for ourselves and for each other and for a future that may be indifferent to the fact that we ever wrote.  If Miles Davis could say/play “So What?” definitively, we can definitely say our being brothers is a beautiful thing.

Peace beyond understanding,


Friday, October 26, 2012

Scholarly Dreams Deferred

The Fall 2012 Oxford University Press literature catalogue of new and noteworthy titles is tantalizing, especially for scholars who have broad interests.  Scholars who teach at research universities may have easy access to Oxford Scholarship Online or to OUP printed titles. Independent scholars without university or college ties can make special efforts to access OUP's attractive books on foundational scholarship and critical trends.  Few of them, I suspect, are wealthy enough to purchase the books that beckon them to explore new worlds.

As a micro-case study, I listed all the books I would like to buy and save 20%:

The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernism ---$120

The Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry ---$120

The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century American Literature --$120

American Modernism and Depression Documenting ---$24

The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel --$24

The Oxford Book of American Short Stories ---$21.95

The Works of Alain Locke ---$36

The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Vol. II ---$200

Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance --$24

The Mount of Vision: African American Prophetic Tradition, 1800-1950 ---$52

Toni Morrison: An Ethical Poetics ----$18.40

Changing Subjects: Digressions in Modern American Poetry ---$28

Speaking to You: Contemporary Poetry and Public Address --$88

Total for books              $876.35

Shipping and handling   $  23.50

TOTAL                          $899.85

Tentative conclusions

(1) I have expensive tastes

(2) Only well-endowed libraries can afford to make this $899.85 investment

(3)  I should use common sense, keep $899.85 in my savings account, and let my deferred dream explode!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Math and Humanity, Part 3

  • Mathematics and What It Means to Be Human, Part 3

    Mathematics and What It Means to Be Human, Part 1 1
    Manil Suri
    Enlarge Image
    closeMathematics and What It Means to Be Human, Part 1 1
    Manil Suri
    In May 2009, Michele Osherow, an English professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and resident dramaturg at the Folger Theatre, in Washington, invited her colleague Manil Suri, a mathematician at the university, to act as mathematics consultant for the Folger's production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. The play explores the relationship between past and present through the characters' intellectual pursuits, poetic and mathematical. That led to a series of "show and tell" sessions explaining the mathematics behind the play both to cast members and to audiences. In the fall of 2011, the two professors decided to take their collaboration to the classroom and jointly teach a freshman seminar, "Mathematics and What It Means to be Human." Here is the final essay of a three-part series on how the experiment played out. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

    Manil Suri: It's reassuring to see that whether in mathematics or the humanities, the last few weeks of a course with a final project follow the same pattern: The jolt of energy that suddenly animates the room when students realize this is it. The grandly ambitious (and hopelessly infeasible) ideas that first emerge. The excitement that turns into consternation when confronted with the impracticality of the studies being proposed. ("And how exactly will you chart all the babies born out of wedlock during the Civil War?" we had to ask one student.)
    Most predictable is the panic when the invariable lurking surprises start popping up like the frantic (and usually inaugural) visits during office hours and the 11th-hour abandonment of a doomed project to start another one. I'd forgotten how entertaining it can be to prolong their agony thus—really must remember to give more projects instead of finals!
    This time, in addition to the usual pitfalls of research and creative works, students had an extra quagmire to watch out for: the mathematics. It had to be an integral part of what they did (a requirement that some tried, unsuccessfully, to dodge), it had to be correct (a requirement we were more willing to bend), and they had to convincingly show they understood the concepts used. Sadly, that last point overwhelmed one of the most unusual of the projects: a short story based on the Prisoner's Dilemma payoff matrix. Yet another reminder that mathematical constructs can be deeper than they appear.
    But we had some sparkling successes, too. One student wrote a story that elegantly finessed chaos theory to imagine a world in which Lincoln might never have become president. Another produced a slick, professional-quality video on beauty and the golden ratio. Mathematically deepest of all was an instrumental composition that musically interpreted what it means to be a sine (or cosine) function—by a humanities scholar inspired to take calculus this semester.
    Michele Osherow: Most students who opted for "creative representations" of humanities and math seemed to procrastinate and be far less certain of their plans than the others. Perhaps they thought such an option would be easy, despite our severe and steady warnings. (Had they forgotten Manil was an accomplished novelist?) The repeated bouts of writer's block and artistic despair we encountered during the final weeks were monumental. Everywhere we turned, there was Konstantin with his dead bird.
    We had planned from the start to also give students the option to produce a research proposal for quantitatively dealing with any humanities topic. We could see it now: our crew of 13 freshmen submitting completed, original research (involving mathematics, of all things) with their applications to the country's top graduate programs in the humanities.
    To nudge them toward real-life research questions, we appealed to their love of cash. The University of Maryland-Baltimore County offers generous grants each year by way of Undergraduate Research Awards. "A real opportunity," we told them. "Once your proposals are crafted, you can parlay them into a URA proposal as a logical next step."
    We don't know that any students actually took that step, but then, freshmen often need to work up the courage. One student has continued to develop her project, which attempts to quantify the influence that specific language or word choice may have on survey respondents (thereby aiding statisticians in the elimination of question bias).
    In the end, I was more impressed with the students' performance than they were with mine. Our course evaluations were the harshest I've seen in years. I'm not naïve or obsessive about this stuff—I know every class can't work for every student, and I know very high evaluations can indicate a lack of rigor.
    Still, the students were critical of areas I'd never before questioned. Some commented that neither of their instructors seemed interested in what the other one had to say. That cut me to the core. I took notes in class, asked questions, confessed my confusion. What does "interest" look like to students nowadays? I wonder, though, if their confidence wasn't shaken when they realized that we two didn't have all the answers, or even all of the questions, but proposed to make these discoveries around the seminar table.
    Manil: Although Michele seemed crushed by a few of the student evaluations, I was actually relieved at how good they were.
    My experience has been to be severely punished in the evaluations whenever I've tried to do something experimental in the classroom. There was the sparsely attended first-year seminar I taught on mathematics in the media, in which, toward the end, only one student was still showing up to class. (The video talk we created as his class project, on the concept of infinity, has had more than 20,000 YouTube viewers, which makes me feel better.) Another workshop I taught that required participants to use mathematics in a creative endeavor (short story, musical piece, artistic creation) ended with a series of e-mails from an irate student excoriating me for the grading scheme that led to her B.
    And then there was the spring 2012 semester. Scheduled to teach the university's usual general-education Math 100 course for nonmajors, and still invigorated by the humanities seminar, I decided to use the most successful aspects from that experience to "perk up" the syllabus (or so I brightly thought) in my intro course. Besides including the videos and computer exercises on fractals and probability, I also employed the basic philosophy of tying everything to real life (for example, having the students read an article on the growth of cities during the chapter on nonlinearity). After all, wasn't this one of the original goals of working on the humanities seminar? To develop materials that could be spread among wider populations, thereby hastening world domination by mathematicians?
    It's true that some of the more motivated students genuinely enjoyed my new and improved Math 100. But many in the class simply couldn't be bothered to keep up—as evidenced by their lackadaisical attendance. Which meant they were stumped on tests and couldn't do the homework. Which meant they were in a decidedly ornery mood during the class before the final, when I handed out evaluation questionnaires. My scores were the worst I've ever received in close to 30 years of teaching. Maybe I will show them to Michele to cheer her up.
    Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the clues from the humanities seminar. Each math assignment (e.g., on fractal music or chaos in population growth) that I slipped in during the seminar generated so many pockets of anxiety that we had to make them extra-credit. The freshmen seemed fine with understanding underlying math ideas, but, as happens even with math majors, absorbing those ideas with enough precision for applications was a problem—as it certainly was for the Math 100 students. One can probably learn almost anything with reasonable competence, but the time to do so depends on both aptitude and interest (which is why Professor Suri, alas, will never be a singer).
    Michele: Well, maybe Professor Suri will never perform live at the Met, but might he be a strong member of the chorus? And couldn't that engagement increase ability, demonstrate skill?
    I don't know if it's a difference in our fields or in our persons, but my co-instructor and I ultimately have different views on how much math the students need to understand in order to see the potential for exchange and the possibilities for collaboration between our "two cultures." I know that the small amount of knowledge I gained at Manil's hand as he took me through the math of Arcadia made a difference in my comprehension of the play. But I could not, based on those sessions, apply an iterated algorithm in problem solving. What I could do was understand an iterated system, and apply that understanding successfully to my work as a dramaturg. And to me, that was really something.
    Scholars in the humanities are constantly looking for connections between fields. How can we discuss literature without knowledge of history or philosophy or (enter discipline of choice)? The interdisciplinary knowledge may come slowly, but even small pockets have value. I don't think mathematicians are required to make such connections as consistently as we do. Manil may never forgive Howard Moss for his insouciant reference (in his poem "Particular Beauties") to Zeno's paradox, or those countless poets for their inaccurate use of the word "infinite." Such connections, sometimes "yoked by violence together," may not always reveal mysteries, but when they do, it's thrilling.
    And that's what seminars foster ideally. They bring together assorted people and perspectives, all focused on examining a subject, so that the participants affect the learning taking place. But I can see now that it was not a setting with which my colleague was as comfortable. There was too much the students did not—could not—know about his topic. Smart and used to speaking up in class as they were, their input appeared initially as a parroting back of our statements, as an indulging in stream-of-consciousness reactions. They participated often, but without necessarily moving things forward. And this drove Manil crazy.
    I understood his frustration but knew, from experience, that the students would improve. They'd start to appreciate what meaningful participation looks like. They would recognize that in seminars, participants are responsible for their own and one another's learning. I'm not sure students are up for that responsibility in their first semester, though studies suggest that they learn better from one another than they do from their instructors. (See a 2010 article, "A Case Study of Cooperative Learning and Communication Pedagogy: Does Working in Teams Make a Difference?," in the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.) But wait: I learn from students, too.
    Manil: Actually, the imperative of interconnection affects mathematicians as well. Few with gainful employment can operate in a bubble. We are constantly called upon to apply our results to engineering, science, and business (and, very gradually, to humanities as well).
    Rather than casting a wide net, what's needed by mathematicians is often more a directed effort, concentrated on the problem at hand. The more pressing problem is one of communication: The volubility of humanities scholars does not necessarily bless those with a more mathematical bent. How to make one's voice heard in a Wall Street team with no other mathematicians? Convince engineers while armed only with a proof's abstractness? Formulate a problem with, or explain its solution to, someone who does not even speak the language?
    Those are issues that perhaps a seminar for mathematics students could examine, even if the format falls short in conveying the amount of technical content that must be absorbed in a typical math course. Perhaps it's time for us to plan the sequel to our course: "The Humanities and What it Means to Be a Mathematician."
    But coming back to humanities students, what math would I prescribe for them? That's a question I was asked several times while teaching the seminar. Most important (and difficult) would be material that establishes numeracy—in particular the ability to judge whether or not numbers, reported figures, calculated quantities, and so on are plausible in their context. It's a skill that doesn't come automatically to most people, not even math majors.
    Closely related would be the ability to recognize what's mathematically relevant. While doing the mathematical exercises, students had a tendency to ramble around, use lots of unnecessary description, without really homing in on the crux of things.
    Next would be a course in statistics: The two outside speakers who addressed the class on using math in their research both employed statistical analysis to buttress their conclusions quantitatively, in addition to just qualitatively. We had fun with various numerical facts and figures that one can mine doing searches on Google databases—for instance, charting the historical course of tuberculosis by counting the number of times it appears annually in published works—but students need to be educated on all the misinterpretations and pitfalls possible.
    On a more ambitious "wishful thinking" scale would be the math required to model social and historical phenomena. For instance, we read the first few pages of a paper that showed how the differential equations used to track the spread of epidemics could be reformulated to model the spread of ideas. Perhaps that's what the crystal ball shows will gain prominence in the future: the mathematical modeling of sweeping historical movements—a fledgling field called "cliodynamics."
    Needless to say, I'd encourage everyone to get enough of an understanding of contemporary mathematical ideas so that they can claim to have a well-rounded education. In return, I pledge to read more Shakespeare.
    Michele: Though there are a lot—I won't say infinite, but an impressive batch of natural numbers' worth—of moments I'd redo if I could, I would not have missed out on co-teaching this seminar, tricky as it was. There is a language to mathematics, and I'm devoted to seeing what language produces and provokes. It was fascinating, even if sometimes frightening, to see how different Manil's and my responses were to various texts and ideas. That didn't make one of us "wrong" (though I didn't realize that immediately); it made the possibilities of scholarship more rich. There wasn't a class in which I didn't learn something, and I've given real thought to certain of our topics and ways I might deal with them on my own. It won't be easy, but then, I know where my co-instructor lives.
    I admit, too, that I loved entering the department of mathematics and statistics with a purpose. I could never have imagined such a thing. I couldn't have told you what side of campus it was on. I knew no math faculty by sight. I knew only those mathematics course numbers that English majors need to graduate. And I suspect that I was as foreign to those numerical types as they were to me. There was an impressive array of surprised/amused/skeptical/dismayed looks from Manil's colleagues and from mine when they heard about our course. "What do you know about math?" people would ask me. "Not enough," was my answer, "but I'm working on it."
    Michele Osherow is an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and resident dramaturg at the Folger Theatre, in Washington. Manil Suri is a professor of mathematics and statistics at the university, and author of the novels "The Death of Vishnu" and "The Age of Shiva". His forthcoming novel is "The City of Devi."

    Wednesday, October 17, 2012

    Mathematics and What It Means to Be Human

    Mathematics and What It Means to Be Human, Part 2

    Mathematics and What It Means to Be Human, Part 1 2
    Michele Osherow
    Enlarge Image
    closeMathematics and What It Means to Be Human, Part 1 2
    Michele Osherow
    In May 2009, Michele Osherow, an English professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and resident dramaturg at the Folger Theatre, in Washington, invited her colleague Manil Suri, a mathematician at the university, to act as mathematics consultant for the Folger's production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. The play explores the relationship between past and present through the characters' intellectual pursuits, poetic and mathematical.That led to a series of "show and tell" sessions explaining the mathematics behind the play both to cast members and audiences. In the fall of 2011, the two professors decided to take their collaboration to the classroom and jointly teach a freshman seminar on "Mathematics and What It Means to be Human." Here is the second of a three-part series on how the experiment played out. Part 1 is here.
    Michele Osherow: While Manil astounded the students with mathematical impossibilities—the trisection of an angle assignment, Zeno's paradox—I focused on the possibilities that characterized the study of literature. Shakespeare's King Lear made it easy to note the range of readings inspired by a single work. But not every text we gave to the students was as richly complex as Lear.
    In fact, convoluted might better describe the poetry we introduced next in the classroom from a collection called the Oulipo Compendium. Oulipo poetry emerged in 1960 when Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais gathered a group of writers and mathematicians in France to create literature guided by strict (very strict) and often bizarre constraints. For example, the S+7 (or N+7) constraint requires that every noun in a text be replaced with the seventh noun appearing after it in a dictionary. (You can find more information about Oulipo poetry here.)
    I had never heard the word Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature) and was surprised when Manil handed me the anthology during our course planning. He qualified the suggestion by saying he had "no idea if it was any good." But I was intrigued: Literature produced through a series of strict constraints was an interesting fusion of our two fields. I wasn't sure, though, if the art was to be found in the language or in the template. I worried that to some students it wouldn't matter.
    When I began reading the material I told myself it was probably more compelling in French. Mostly, I thought the Oulipo pieces were sometimes clever, but more often bizarre outcomes of linguistic games. There are some impressive names among the Oulipians (including Italo Calvino), however, and we decided to let the class have at it. I saw it as an opportunity to introduce students to postmodernism, and give them a chance to think and write creatively. Though I dreaded that they would love the stuff.
    It felt strange calling the selections we examined "poetry." I couldn't pull much meaning from the works, and neither could the students, which lead to a discussion of the ways in which meaning might be determined by a reader's will. Somehow, though, the more time we spent examining Oulipian patterns, the more compelling I found the game. I liked these poets' sense of humor and their intolerance of pretentious artists and academics alike. Plus, I appreciated their name—the word potentielle seemed so compelling, and forgiving. Could we brand our class a seminaire potentiel?
    Manil Suri: It had seemed like a plausible item for the syllabus, but delving deeper made me realize just how pseudo-mathematical (not to mention pseudo-literary) Oulipo was. At one point, I asked Michele if it was OK to use the term "mental masturbation" in a humanities class—words I'd never found an appropriate occasion to deploy in 28 years of teaching. She said yes, so I did, to only a stray titter (my math students would probably have been more shocked).
    Fortunately, Oulipo did lead to some good dialogue. The fact that the anthology opened with a grandiose manifesto of qualifying rules (surely an unpromising sign for any literary work, even if partially tongue-in-cheek) paved the way to explore the axiomatic foundations of math. One reading was an English translation of the fantastically ambitious (at least in title) Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, or One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. It's a set of 10 sonnets, from which new poems can be formed by choosing the first line from the first line of any of the 10 poems, the second line from the second lines of the 10 poems, and so on. The only problem is the new poems don't necessarily make sense.
    Our reading led to a discussion of permutations and combinations. That was my cue to point out that each poem in Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes could be identified by a unique 14-digit number (specifying the source poem for each line). Given our society's obsession with quantification, I asked the students, would we eventually find a means to reduce all literature this way? The class didn't believe so, at least based on what Oulipo had to offer.
    But Michele rose to the movement's defense, striking upon the correct word to capture the link between mathematics and Oulipo: At their core, they were both games. Once we arrived at that insight, the class dove in. The students' creativity blossomed when we told them to come up with their own Oulipian constraint and then create a work based on it. Some formulated their constraints based on an Ipod's shuffling, others on hair braiding, or language overheard in a cafe. One even constructed a poem using the time-signature function of a metronome.
    Michele: The students' forced poetic labor with Oulipo inspired them to tackle more challenging works. We examined poems specifically on or referencing mathematical topics, such as Blake's "Tyger," Edna St. Vincent Millay's sonnet on Euclid, Howard Moss's "Particular Beauties."
    I found myself jazzed by the poets' playfulness and investigations of mathematical concepts. My colleague? Not so much. It was during a discussion of Moss's poem that I saw an alarmed look sweep Manil's face—a look that erupted into the lamentation, "I'm drowning in a sea of metaphor!" It was the lack of precision, the seemingly endless array of meanings, that frustrated Manil. He was at his most earnest that day and I welcomed it, although I was surprised to hear an accusation of imprecision leveled at poetry, in particular.
    But I knew enough by that point to see that the precision to which he was accustomed was different from that found in the humanities. There is precision in poetry—in its crafting and in its comprehension—but interpretations are not limited to a single, most correct reading.
    It was easy to concede that Manil was right about one thing: These poets were playing fast and loose with mathematical concepts and were not conveying the full complexity of constructs like Zeno's paradox (in Moss's "Particular Beauties"). But then that wasn't their job, I protested. The task of poets is to use those things available to them in order to share observations about the world.
    I think the students liked those days when Manil and I went at it. I liked those moments, too, because I not only had to confront another perspective head on but also had to challenge my own. I loved seeing the baffled expressions of the students while their instructors disagreed; the things we were asking them to consider were perplexing and appropriate.
    Manil: I like to think I'm cognizant of the precision needed in literary construction, being a writer myself (there—I've played it—my trump card of having dabbled in different disciplines; the academic equivalent of the sensitive male).
    But yes, I found it difficult to sit still as meticulous mathematical principles were divested of their integrity in the service of poetic cleverness. Mathematics is so poorly understood as it is, by poets and readers alike. To further confuse its meaning in swirls of willful metaphor seemed a dubious pursuit. (I suppose I must have come off as a grumpy party-pooper—probably still do.)
    As for more general accusations, I wasn't knowledgeable enough about the humanities' goals and methodologies to make a comparison with those of mathematics. Perhaps there'd be a chance later for a no-holds-barred thrashing out. Which would be invigorating and instructive, even with odds against me of 14-to-1.
    But onward with our story. Freshly spewed out by the sea of metaphor, I led the class to hopefully firmer ground: a field trip to Baltimore's Walters Art Museum for a perfectly timed exhibition on a recently rediscovered palimpsest that recorded several discoveries by Archimedes (including an understanding of infinity and aspects of calculus).
    The poster for the exhibition, "Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes," showed much mathematical promise: geometrical figures floating in space seemed to be the clear stars of the show. Except the exhibit turned out to be mostly about the conservation techniques used to decipher this and other manuscripts.
    While Michele lingered lovingly over each panel, I gnashed my teeth in bitterness (but discreetly, so as not to alarm the students). Mathematics was a clear afterthought, relegated to some modest exhibits in the final gallery. Another opportunity to make the subject come alive was lost. The New York Times reviewer complained about this, as did (a bright spot!) some of our freshmen.
    Toward the end of the visit, though, was a sight to warm the cockles of even the coldest mathematician heart. On a low-set table was Archimedes' famous "Stomachion" jigsaw, where visitors were invited to assemble 14 irregular pieces of colored felt into a square (something that could be done in 17,152 different ways). Students from our class were trying to solve the puzzle jointly with math majors we had invited along. Michele and I watched the collaborative effort as proudly as doting parents. Maybe there was hope, maybe the twain could meet after all.
    Michele: We carried that hope into the final unit for the course, one devoted both to fractals and to the Tom Stoppard play, Arcadia, that first caused me to seek out Manil as a mathematics consultant for the Folger production.
    I felt optimistic about the upcoming lessons: This was, after all, the text that prompted my collaboration with my unlikely (I nearly wrote unlucky) co-instructor. I hoped the students would be as fired up as we were by Stoppard's smarts, and by the connections he makes between mathematics and literature. I hoped they would appreciate the layering of time, ideas, and relationships; I hoped they'd dispute the penicillin versus poetry binary.
    It was easy for me to forget, blinded by love, that Arcadia is a difficult read, especially for freshmen who hadn't been exposed previously to a staging of the play, or to Stoppard (true genius, but dense reading). They needed more hand-holding with the play than they did with Lear; they were confused by the shifting time periods and even by the humor. There was much historical and ideological ground to cover—the transition from Enlightened to Romantic thought, the role of knowledge and landscape. They didn't understand iterated algorithms or the play's ending. We needed another semester.
    But we also needed closure. It was that time when the students were expected to see the connections we'd been hunting throughout the term. I took them back to where we had started, the search for patterns, and we went through the play looking for patterns of thought, situation, and language. The students could do that well but also had a good eye for the differences among the repeated patterns.
    "Right!" I said, "Does that mean they're 'iterated?' Is the play a kind of literary fractal?"
    Manil: And there we have it, a question that crystallizes the conflicts in this course—and perhaps in the interaction of art and mathematics in general. A fractal is a precise mathematical entity, one with infinite levels of self-similarity, and moreover, possessing a fractional dimension (e.g., neither a one-dimensional line nor a two-dimensional patch, but something cloudlike that lives in between).
    Mathematical training insists such definitions be rigorously observed. If they're not, everything that follows can collapse like a house of cards. Clearly, such an attitude would be downright Talibanistic for a course like this one. And yet, to make analogies, to bandy about technical terms, or to employ them in art, one needs to achieve a certain level of understanding first.
    Which, alas, does not come easy. Bringing the class to a point where they could discuss the play in terms of fractals had taken work. It was a definite accomplishment (fortunately, we could use the animations I had prepared for the Folger production of the play).
    Did the students have more than a hazy idea of fractional dimension? Of course not. And neither would most math majors without a course on the topic. But we fortunately didn't need to go that deep, just like my understanding about Romantic versus Classicist garden design in Stoppard's play (something I'm still indignant at him for expecting me to be familiar with) remains cursory. What Arcadia does is invite you to expand your horizons, offering tantalizing glimpses of interlinked worlds waiting to be explored. The extent to which you journey into them, the work you put in, the connections you forge with what is familiar to you, have to be your own. In hindsight, that was perhaps the main message of our course.
    The last thing we did with Arcadia was read aloud an excerpt from it—the diatribe that Bernard, the literary don, aims at the mathematician Valentine: "Oh, you're going to zap me with penicillin and pesticides. Spare me that and I'll spare you the bomb and aerosols. But don't confuse progress with perfectibility. A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need."
    It was the perfect juncture to loop back to C.P. Snow, whose famous "Two Cultures" essay about the divide in Western intellectual thought between the sciences and the humanities we had discussed at the beginning of the course. The class still saw the divide, still saw the long road ahead.
    But perhaps the students were more optimistic than Snow (or Bernard). They'd now glimpsed the future: the digitalization of the humanities, the emphasis on statistical and quantified evidence, the interconnectedness of human experience. The next phase, their individual projects, would reveal whether the corner had been turned.
    Next week: The students strike back!
    Michele Osherow is an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and resident dramaturg for the Folger Theatre in Washington. Manil Suri is a professor of mathematics and statistics at the university, and author of the novels "The Death of Vishnu" and "The Age of Shiva." His forthcoming novel is "The City of Devi."

    Monday, October 15, 2012

    This is meaningful work----writing letters

    The Art of Letter Writing

    by Brett & Kate McKay on April 16, 2009 · 62 comments
    In the days of cell phones, email, and text messages, letter writing can seem hopelessly outdated. But it’s an art worth bringing back, and not because of some misplaced sense of nostalgia either. The writing and reception of letters will always offer an experience that modern technology cannot touch. Twitter is effective for broadcasting what you’re eating for lunch, and email is fantastic for quick exchanges on the most pertinent pieces of information. But when it comes to sharing one’s true thoughts, sincere sympathies, ardent love, and deepest gratitude, words traveling along an invisible superhighway will never suffice. Why?
    Because sending a letter is the next best thing to showing up personally at someone’s door. Ink from your pen touches the stationary, your fingers touch the paper, your saliva seals the envelope. Something tangible from your world travels through machines and hands, and deposits itself in another’s mailbox. Your letter is then carried inside as an invited guest. The paper that was sitting on your desk, now sits on another’s. The recipient handles the paper that you handled. Letters create a connection that modern, impersonal forms of communication will never approach.

    For two years before we were married, Kate and I were a thousand miles apart, with letter-writing our only available means of communication. We fell in love over the dozens of letters sent between us. I do not know of a richer and more satisfying way of getting to know a person. Today the collection of letters from that time is one of our most treasured possessions, something we hope our kids will read and get a kick out of. Thus, letters not only serve a purpose in the here and now, they also stand as historical records, giving us a incomparable window into the past. Anyone who has ever come across the old letters of parents and grandparents and suddenly felt transported back to another time and place, knows well the legacy-leaving power of letters. What will we leave our grandchildren? The username and password to our email accounts?
    Now is the time to strike up a correspondence with your friends and lovers. I do not know a single person whose countenance does not light up at the sight of a real letter in their mailbox. So many of us, myself included, look forward to getting the mail each day, even though the majority of the time it’s simply a pile of catalogs and bills. The desire for real correspondence clearly hasn’t left us. But if you want a letter, you have to send a letter. It’s up to you take the initiative and begin the circle of communication.
    Snail mail has fallen out of favor of late, and many men may understandably need a refresher on its practice. Today begins a series of letter writing articles that will appear on the Art of Manliness. We will cover everything from the selection of stationery to the how to’s concerning the writing of specific letters such as those expressing sympathy and congratulations. Today, we present a simple overview on letter writing.

    Supplies Needed

    If you’re going to become a letter-writing artist, you’re going to need to acquire the tools of the trade. Getting handsome stationery and high quality writing implements will make practicing your craft all the more enjoyable. We’ll be covering each of things in-depth later on, but here is a brief overview of what you’ll need:
    In the art of letter-writing, stationery is your canvas. You’ll want to purchase stationery in a few different sizes for letters and notes of various lengths. Always keep your stationery simple and distinguished.
    Fountain Pen
    Using a fountain pen requires a bit of practice and finesse, but provides several benefits. The writing from a fountain pen adds a subtle hint of sophistication and class that’s hard to get from a 20 cent Bic ballpoint. And instead of having to endlessly press down on the paper, you glide a fountain pen across the page, allowing you to write for hours without tiring your hand.
    Wax and Seal
    The tradition of sealing one’s correspondence with a wax seal is one with royal roots. Kings and dignitaries applied the seal to ensure their letters were opened only by the intended recipient and to certify who had written it. These days, they just look dang cool and give you a chance to play with fire.
    Letter Opener
    Image by Living Studios
    Once you start sending letters, you’ll begin getting them back as well. Nothing is more annoying then trying to tear open a well-stuck envelope with your paws, so get a nice letter opener to do the job right. My grandpa had one that looked like a little sword, and I thought that was pretty sweet as a kid.

    The Art of Letter Writing

    What follows is a brief overview of letter writing, taken from Hills Manual of Social and Business Forms. This 1821 publication, has, as we have previously discussed, advice that is as fresh today as it was a hundred years ago. We turn now to Professor Thomas Hill for a primer on the basic ins and outs of letter writing:
    You have thoughts that you wish to communicate to another through the medium of a letter. Possibly you have a favor to bestow. Quite as likely you have a favor to ask. In either case you wish to write that letter in a manner such as to secure the respect and consideration of the person with whom you correspond.
    The rules for the mechanical execution of a letter are few ; understanding and observing the rules already considered for composition, the writer has only to study perfect naturalness of expression, to write a letter well.

    Style and Manner

    The expression of language should, as nearly as possible, be the same as the writer would speak. A letter is but a talk on paper. The style of writing will depend upon the terms of intimacy existing between the parties. If to a superior, it should be respectful ; to inferiors, courteous ; to friends, familiar ; to relatives, affectionate.


    Do not be guilty of using that stereotyped phrase,
    Dear Friend:
    I now take my pen in hand to let you know that I am well, and hope you are enjoying the same great blessing.
    Be original. You are not exactly like any one else. Your letter should be a representative of yourself, not of anybody else. The world is full of imitators in literature, who pass on, leaving no reputation behind them. Occasionally originals come up, and fame and fortune are ready to do them service. The distinguished writers of the past and present have gone aside from the beaten paths. Letter writing affords a fine opportunity for the display of originality. In your letter be yourself ; write as you would talk.

    Purity of Expression

    Bear in mind the importance, in your correspondence, of using always the most chaste and beautiful language it is possible to command, consistent with ease and naturalness of expression. Especially in the long letters of friendship and love – those missives that reveal the heart-the language should show that the heart is pure. Let your letter be the record of the fancies and mood of the hour; the reflex of your aspirations, your joys, your disappointments; the faithful daguerreotype of your intellectuality and your moral worth.
    You little dream how much that letter may influence your future. How much it may give of hope and happiness to the one receiving it. How much it may be examined, thought of, laughed over and commented on; and when you suppose it has long since been destroyed, it may be brought forth, placed in type, and published broadcast to millions of readers.
    When, in after years, the letter you now write is given to the world, will there be a word, an expression, in the same that you would blush to see in print?
    Write in the spirit of cheerfulness. It is unkind to the correspondent to fill the sheet with petty complainings, though there are occasions when the heart filled with grief may confide all its troubles and sorrows to the near friend, and receive in return a letter of sympathy and condolence, containing all the consolation it is possible for the written missive to convey.
    The length of letters will depend upon circumstances. As a rule, however, business letters should be short, containing just what is necessary to be said, and no more.


    To be written correctly according to general usage, a letter will embrace the following parts:
    1st, the date
    2nd, complimentary address
    3rd, body of the letter
    4th, complimentary closing
    5th signature
    6th, superscription
    Position of the Various Parts.

    Etiquette of Letter Writing

    As a rule, every letter, unless insulting in its character, requires an answer. To neglect to answer a letter, when written to, is as uncivil as to neglect to reply when spoken to. In the reply, acknowledge first the receipt of the letter, mentioning its date, and afterwards consider all the points requiring attention.
    If the letter is to be very brief, commence sufficiently far from the top of the page to give a nearly equal amount of blank paper at the bottom of the sheet when the letter is ended.
    In writing a letter, the answer to which is of more benefit to yourself than the person to whom you write, enclose a postage stamp for the reply.
    Letters should be as free from erasures, interlineations, blots and postscripts as possible. It is decidedly better to copy the letter than to have these appear.

    Related Posts

    Our Poets are Our Dangerous Friends


    Our poets do many beneficial things for our commonweal.  They teach in public schools, in colleges and universities, in alternative education programs, in community centers and churches and sites of ill-repute.  When they feel generous, they call our attention to the works of other poets, to the writings of novelists, essayists, hard and soft scientists, and dramatists.  When they feel bitter and small, they call attention only to their egos.

    They ---  Dudley Randall, Naomi Long Madgett, Margaret T. Burroughs, Margaret Walker, Ishmael Reed, Lenard D. Moore, Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady,  Haki Madhubuti  ---build institutions of great importance in our cultural lives ---Broadside Press, Lotus Press, DuSable Museum, the Margaret Walker Center for the Study of the African American Experience,  I. Reed Books, the North Carolina Collective African American Writers Collective, Cave Canem Foundation,  Third World Press.

    They --- Al Young,  Gwendolyn Brooks, Lance Jeffers, Ntozake Shange, Angela Jackson, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Sapphire, Clarence Major, Ishmael Reed,  Sherley Anne Williams, Gayl Jones  --- write novels.

    They  ---  Kalamu ya Salaam, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers,  and E. Ethelbert Miller  --create and maintain list-serves, websites, and blogspots.

    They  ---  Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed,  Clarence Major,  Camille T. Dungy, James Weldon Johnson, Larry Neal, Kevin Powell, Sterling Brown, Mari Evans, Dudley Randall,  Tony Medina, Arna Bontemps, Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez,  Michael Harper, June Jordan, Kevin Young, Louis Reyes Rivera, Rita Dove, Kwame Dawes, E. Ethelbert Miller  ---  edit noteworthy anthologies.

    They  ---  Eugene B. Redmond, Alvin Aubert, Rudolph Lewis, C. Liegh McInnis ---  found and publish magazines   --- Drumvoices Revue, OBSIDIAN,  ChickenBones, Black Magnolias.

    They  ---  Audre Lorde , Lorenzo Thomas, Kalamu ya Salaam, LeRoi Jones[ Amiri Baraka],  Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Nathaniel Mackey,  Eugene B. Redmond, Maya Angelou, Margaret Walker, Jean Toomer,  Harryette Mullen , Bob Kaufman ---  write touchstone books  --- Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Extraordinary Measures, What Is Life?, Blues People, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Liberating Voices, Discrepant Engagement, Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Jubilee, Cane, The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews, Golden Sardine.

    Our poets are our dangerous friends who give eyesight to the blind.

    Friday, October 12, 2012

    The Jackson Advocate

    For the Jackson Advocate



    Jackson Advocate: Source and Resource

    by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.


                    For an ordinary reader in the twenty-first century, a newspaper is simply a certain number of pages containing print and photographs. The quality of paper used and specifics of design or packaging of information allow the ordinary reader to distinguish a newspaper from a magazine.  The reader is very sure that information in a newspaper must be easy to read.  It must be brief.  The headline is the story.  A magazine paragraph can have four or more sentences.  The ideal newspaper paragraph must be limited to three sentences or less.  Brevity is all.

                    Such exaggeration makes a point about African American newspapers. Since the founding of Freedom’s Journal in 1827, many black newspapers have violated the rules of elegant journalism.  They have done so out of necessity.  They have violated rules and custom in order to expose the more compelling social, political, and cultural violations of rights and entitlements which obtain in the United States of America.  Since 1938, the Jackson Advocate has been a player in this game.  It has violated some of the laws of journalism and most of the rules of thumb used by ordinary readers.  Habitual transgressions have made it a model African American newspaper for 75 years.

                    The primary mission of the black press (newspapers) has been oppositional.  The mission has been one of revealing the facts and events which the so-called mainstream American newspapers have concealed, minimized, or ignored. In this sense, the black newspapers have been more transparent or forthcoming in using the function of journalism in everyday life.  At the time of its founding in the State of Mississippi, the Jackson Advocate had to do more than merely print the news. Conditions in Mississippi did not allow the Jackson Advocate the luxury of imitating the debatable “objectivity” of such national papers as the New York Times. It had to be overtly partisan in a closed society where “truth” was a cardinal sin.

                    We are indebted to the late historian Julius E. Thompson for much that we know about the founding of the Jackson Advocate and its existence as a vital source of information for black Mississippians and the rest of the nation.  Thompson, who was relentless in his pursuit of truth, in his research on the facts of African American history, published three books that are essential for understanding the history and importance of the Jackson Advocate:

    The Black Press in Mississippi, 1865-1985: A Directory.  West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 1988.

    The Black Press in Mississippi, 1865-1985. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993.

    Percy Greene and the Jackson Advocate: The Life and Times of a Radical Conservative Black Newspaperman, 1897-1977.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1994.

    Thompson’s work is foundational for any future histories of the Jackson Advocate and of African American journalism.

                    One tidbit of information about the Jackson Advocate in the 1940s whets one’s appetite to know about the impact of journalism on the evolving of Mississippi’s history. In Lynchings in Mississippi: A History, 1865-1965 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2007), Thompson noted that in 1942 Percy Greene bravely “spoke out against the deaths by lynching of the two fourteen-year-old black boys in Shubuta, Mississippi.”  Other black Mississippi newspapers, notably the Delta Leader and the Mississippi Enterprise, “largely remained silent on the lynching crisis in Mississippi.”  When the brilliant editor Charles Tisdale became the Jackson Advocate’s publisher in 1978, he swiftly breathed new life into what had become a conservative, lackluster newspaper.  Unlike, Greene, Tisdale was a stalwart radical, a true heir of nineteenth-century nationalists who understood that African American newspapers served as instruments in the long struggle for freedom and literacy.  Until his death in 2007, he ensured that the Jackson Advocate would make special contributions to the historical record.  Under his leadership, the paper never failed to serve the political, intellectual, and psychological needs of black Mississippians despite many efforts to discredit him and to destroy the Jackson Advocate.  Since his death, Alice Thomas -Tisdale has worked tirelessly to maintain her husband’s legacy in the face of irreversible changes in journalism and new information technologies.  She is dedicated to maintaining the newspaper as a resource for the future.
                    Any celebration of the newsworthy fact that the Jackson Advocate has survived for 75 years in Jackson, Mississippi must be purposeful.  In 2013, the Jackson Advocate should be the central subject of rigorous inquiry about the past and future of African American journalism