What we learned at the Chicago Humanities Festival this weekend | Bleader

Monday, November 5, 2018

What we learned at the Chicago Humanities Festival this weekend

Posted By , , , and on 11.05.18 at 05:26 PM

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Don't forget Ida B. Wells

click to enlarge Ida B. Wells
  • Ida B. Wells

Remembering is hard work, and being the guardian of memory for a famous ancestor is even more taxing. Just ask Ida B. Wells's great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster.

Wells was born into slavery in 1862. She became an investigative journalist, an anti-lynching campaigner, and one of the most influential people of her time. An unapologetic intersectional feminist long before that term entered common parlance, Wells co-founded the NAACP and published prolifically. Yet other civil rights and feminist leaders—both black men and white women—resented her radical fervor and outspokenness and sidelined her throughout her life. In 1931 she died in obscurity without so much as an obituary in the New York Times.

The paper of record is trying to remedy that oversight and published a long-overdue tribute to Wells last spring. But the resurrection of Wells’s memory is an ongoing project.

Wells lived in Chicago for many years, at 36th and King Drive, and became the namesake of the city’s first public housing development for black families. With the destruction of the projects her name was erased from the city’s landscape. For the last ten years, Duster has been fundraising to build a monument in Bronzeville to preserve Wells’s memory—often at the expense of her own identity, since most people want to talk to her only about her great grandmother and seem to overlook that she, Michelle, a writer and lecturer at Columbia College, is her own woman.

This year, boosted by the social media activism of some of today's prominent black woman journalists, educators, and organizers, Duster’s family’s dream came one step closer to fruition. In the span of two months, they raised $200,000 to pay for a commission by sculptor Richard Hunt. The sculpture will stand in a small plaza where the Ida B. Wells Homes used to be; after demolition was completed in 2011, they were replaced by a mixed-income community. Last summer, the city also moved to rename Congress Parkway to Ida B. Wells Drive. And people are eager to do more. When asked how else they could keep Wells’s memory alive, Duster responded plainly: "Vote." —Maya Dukmasova


Tom Hanks prefers his sandwiches breadless

click to enlarge Hanks and Sagal, admiring the simultaneous transcription - DAVID T. KINDLER
  • David T. Kindler
  • Hanks and Sagal, admiring the simultaneous transcription

As Tom Hanks strolled out onto the stage, holding hands with NPR’s Peter Sagal, his interviewer for the evening, the audience was palpably star-struck. However, as the these longtime pals, who are two of the more iconic voices of the last few decades, started their conversation, an equally strong sense of ease swept the crowd, as if we were all listening to our cool uncles sharing advice over a couple of pints. This is an odd sensation to have while in the same room as one of the most acclaimed and successful actors of a generation, but that seems to be Tom: hero to many and friend to all.

Hanks has had his fair share of portraying heroes. It’s through his newest role though, as a first-time novelist, that he finally shares what he thinks makes a hero. After writing and putting together his collection of short stories Uncommon Type: Some Stories he had to step back and ask himself "What are the connective tissues that tie these works together?"
None are grand tales with extremely terrible situations or extremely wonderful outcomes. And yet, to Hanks, they are examples of heroism. They are all studies of people's ability to make it through each day and still feel good about themselves, aided by unexpected allies. That's it, and it's the exact same combination of conditions and attitude that shaped the epics of Jim Lovell, Captain Miller, Robert Langdon, Chesley Sullenberger, Ben Bradlee, and Forrest Gump. For Captain Phillips literally and the rest metaphorically, what made them heroes was the constant thought of, "How can I get these people off this boat" and the wherewithal to see it through.

About the bread thing. When asked, by an audience member, what his ideal sandwich would be, Hanks replied that the nutritionist who helps him manage his type 2 diabetes told him that for his metabolism, bread is poison. But adding an egg is always a good idea. Even to oatmeal.

When Sagal asked what his favorite story in the book was, Hanks said it was the one based on his father-in-law’s escape from Communist persecution in Bulgaria. Until pressed on it by Hanks, he had never spoken about his immigration to the United States. He assumed that no one would be interested. To Hanks, it was the pinnacle example of, again, someone just trying to make it through his day, not knowing he is doing so against great odds, but aided by bravery, luck, and the goodness of fair people.

According to Hanks 90 percent of people are good. And, yeah, 5 percent are assholes (with 5 percent unaccounted for) but it’s that far greater majority that matter. Hanks recounted that while growing up in pre-Civil Rights Act Oakland, California, he rode the bus every day. He rode side by side with people of every color, and day in and day out all that happened was that people got on the bus and people got off the bus. He didn’t realize it at the time, but that was extraordinary. That was the 90 percent in action.

Time was nearly up when Hanks and Sagal realized that everything they were saying was being transcribed and flashed on a screen above them, and we learned that if Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Tom Hanks can marvel at something he simply hadn’t yet noticed, then we can all look a little closer at something each day and realize there is something new to be delighted by.

Oh, and to always add an egg. —Brita Hunegs


Dessa has to sign copies of her book even at the airport

click to enlarge Dessa - DAVID T. KINDLER
  • David T. Kindler
  • Dessa

Dessa knows how to entertain people. What's more, the rapper, singer, poet, and author understands how to reach a crowd regardless of whether they're deeply invested in her solo work or the music she's made as part of the independent Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree. So as an introduction to her Chicago Humanities Festival talk at the Chicago Athletic Association on Sunday, she read fragments from the second chapter of her new memoir, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love. That section is laid out as a glossary, and it offers a snapshot of Dessa’s rise through the international independent music circuit.

Her reading showed why she's survived in a brutal industry. Witty, easygoing, and magnetic, Dessa didn't so much read aloud as interact with her writing, at one point enlisting a volunteer to act as her hype-man in order to explain the term "hype." Dessa knows how to wrench life out of the dull and mundane. In My Own Devices, she uses the repetitive rituals of tour life to shed light on her Doomtree compatriots or to consider idiosyncratic questions concerning science and nutrition—like how many cashews she’d have to eat in a day to survive if that’s all she were allowed to consume.

Dessa also discussed the peculiar hiccups she encountered as an indie musician working on a book for a big publisher. The Penguin Random House imprint Dutton is a world away from Rain Taxi, the Minneapolis alternative publisher behind Dessa's 2013 poetry book, A Pound of Steam. Now Dessa has a book publicity team encouraging her to sign copies of My Own Devices at every bookstore where she can spot the memoir. Even in airports—yes, on at least on occasion she got handed a stack of her own books to sign in an airport bookstore.

In her conversation with Tribune music critic Greg Kot, Dessa dug deeper on what it’s meant for her to select an unconventional career path and stick with it. She dropped her solo album Chime on Doomtree's independent label in February and turned 37 a few months later, an age that’s conventionally seen as ancient by hip-hop standards. A mixture of her own ambition and stubbornness along with a little luck have helped Dessa, but she also acknowledged that the possibility of failure has been a motivating force. "For me, the idea of having wasted my life is a prospect that pushes me back to the lab, or back to the microphone, or back to the writing desk," she said. "I affirm the idea that we’re more sensitive to losses than to gains." —Leor Galil


Jessica Hopper got through her 20s with a lot of help from her friends

click to enlarge Jessica Hopper - DAVID SAMPSON
  • David Sampson
  • Jessica Hopper

Jessica Hopper looked to her personal journals while writing her memoir, Night Moves, and there's one passage in particular that she can't shake: "If I'm not living my most hopeful politics at the ripe old age of 29, then what the hell am I doing?" Hopper says reading that line at age 40 is what steered her back toward writing.

"That line kicked my ass," she told her interlocutor, poet José Olivarez. "What would 29-year-old me think? It made me take an immediate inventory of my life."

Now a 42-year-old suburban mom, Hopper mostly remembers the period covered in her book—2004 to 2008—as years of being broke and living in a gross apartment, trying to make a living by writing concert previews for the Reader and taking DJ gigs for measly amounts of money. But writing the book has right-sized her vision, helping her appreciate what was really happening at that place and time while still not romanticizing it.

The core of the memoir is about how Hopper came to find who she calls her "forever friends" and how they shaped her time in Chicago. She specifically avoided any romantic arc in the book (though her now-husband is mentioned throughout) because there are plenty of books about women who go through torrid love affairs in their 20s. And that's not what was as important to Hopper, anyway.

"For me," Hopper says, "friendship is really the thing that's evolved my thinking and being more than my romance." —Brianna Wellen


There was a real girl behind Nabokov's Lolita—of course there was

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When I first heard about Sarah Weinman's research project—now a book called The Real Lolita, the research for which was the topic of her CHF discussion with Rachel Shteir of DePaul University in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church, I was captivated. There was a real girl behind Vladimir Nabokov’s most renowned fictional creation? Of course there was. A man known as Frank LaSalle—although he had about 20 aliases—kidnapped an 11-year old girl named Sally Horner from her home in Camden, New Jersey in the summer of 1948. (This is mentioned in Nabokov’s text.) If the legacy of #MeToo leaves us with no other lasting lessons, let it leave us with the knowledge that there is always a real crime against a real woman or a girl at the heart of all fiction.

Lolita is the perfect story to consider in this post-#MeToo moment: Weinman says she wanted to "create a portrait of what this 11-year-old girl had gone through," including sexual abuse, repeated rape, and trauma. Because the novel is told by way of unreliable narrator Humbert Humbert, readers aren’t even made aware it was happening.

Of course, the audience was paltry, which gives us further insight into the #MeToo legacy: It'll still be awhile before we learn to give a shit about real things that happen to real women and girls. —Anne Elizabeth Moore

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