Why history matters
In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week guest columnist PEARL MCHANEY, a Georgia State University professor, discusses how voices from our past speak to our present.
By Pearl McHaney
Speaking at Duke University in 1954 at the height of the Cold War, when threats were thick and fears were rampant, Eudora Welty said, “Mutual understanding in the world being nearly always, as now, at low ebb, it is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another, if the other can hear at all. Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, indeed, but truth.”
I didn’t have this quotation in mind when I organized the upcoming Southern Writers Onstage: Living in the Jim Crow South, a series of dramatic readings at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s—itself a historic space (in 1963, Herren’s was the first downtown restaurant to voluntarily open its tables to African Americans). But now, with inflammatory rhetoric about citizenship, the value of lives black, brown, and white, and the memorialization/revision of history, I feel that hearing the carefully written words of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Ernest Gaines will help to ground us in our shared past and give us opportunity to engage in reasoned discourse.
Where can we begin to hear one another, to listen to the voices of individuals who speak “not comfort of any sort, indeed, but truth”? Such an opportunity, I believe, is made available to us by our urban research university Georgia State partnering with the downtown Theatrical Outfit. Theater’s origins are in creating an open forum for public debate, and universities exist for articulating questions for which we can search for answers. It has long been recognized that the humanities offer windows and doors through which we can learn of other worlds, other people unlike ourselves, and can then, through reflection, better understand ourselves. This process highlights for us our ideas and actions and calls them into examination.
Beginning Tuesday, February 2, and on three following Tuesdays, from 12 to 1 p.m., Georgia State University’s Department of English and Center for Collaborative and International Arts in partnership with Theatrical Outfit at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s offer dramatic readings of work that illustrates living under the Jim Crow laws that regulated racial segregation during a period defined as 1877-1954. We know that Brown v. Board of Education did not end our national apartheid; many believe that a post-racial democracy is an unrealizable ideal. But we must take such opportunities as they come along to educate ourselves of others’ lives.
Five Atlanta actors with national stage, screen, and television acclaim will present such occasions.
- February 2 — Eric Moore and Tony Vaughn will read from Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up from Slavery. Their excerpt long precedes Washington’s 1895 speech at Piedmont Park during the Cotton States and International Exposition, a speech later referred to, derisively, I believe, as the Atlanta Compromise. Instead, we will learn of Washington’s earnest struggle to get an education, journeying from West Virginia to Hampton Institute in Virginia and then on to Tuskegee.
- February 9 — Eric Little will read a moving passage from The Souls of Black Folk relating the death of W. E. B. Du Bois’s young son in 1899 while Du Bois was teaching at Atlanta University.
- February 16 — E. Roger Mitchell will offer a chapter from Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy.
- April 19 — Rob Cleveland will read the short story “The Sky Is Gray” by contemporary writer Ernest Gaines, author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
All of the Southern Writers Onstage programs are free and open to the public. I believe that knowing our history, we can create a better future.
Pearl McHaney is the Kenneth M. England Professor of Southern Literature and Director of the Center for Collaborative and International Arts at Georgia State University.
Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.