Chicago Humanities Festival asks what it means to be a citizen | Fall Preview | Chicago Reader

Chicago Humanities Festival asks what it means to be a citizen 

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Elvis Costello is one of the many speakers booked for this year's Chicago Humanities Festival.

Elvis Costello is one of the many speakers booked for this year's Chicago Humanities Festival.

Mary McCartney

"Citizens" had already been chosen as the theme of this year's Chicago Humanities Fest by the time Jonathan Elmer took over as artistic director last February, but he think's it's a good choice.

"It's very, very appropriate for the moment," he says. "I can't think of a time in recent memory when the idea of being a citizen has been tested in so many different domains, nationally with the debates over who can marry and who can vote, and internationally with the migrancy crisis, the worst since World War II."

The festival begins with events at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago the weekend of October 24 and concludes on November 8 with Pilsen Day, a celebration of the neighborhood that includes walking tours, discussions about the immigrant experience, and a concluding party at Thalia Hall. In between more than 130 philosophers, writers, historians, artists, musicians, chefs, and comedians will share their ideas and research about what it means to be a citizen. Expect a range of approaches and viewpoints with a few main threads running throughout, notably a discussion of what it means to be an African-American in this country.

Elmer says he's especially looking forward to a discussion with political philosopher Danielle Allen about Our Declaration, her book-length reflection on the Declaration of Independence. Allen taught the founding document to a class of U. of C. undergrads as well as a night-school class of adults with full-time jobs.

"It must be for all citizens," Elmer says. "But she looks at the different ways her two audiences approached the issue. At its heart are questions of racial equality."

With his first CHF as artistic director approaching, Elmer is still trying to pinpoint where the festival sits in the cultural landscape of the city.

"If we do our job, we're providing a program of provocative speakers on provocative subjects," he says. "If we're not criticized, we're not doing our job."

10/24-11/8, various times and locations, 312-464-9509,, free-$38.

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