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PAFA Remembers WWI

in Arts by

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “war art”? I’m not sure why, but I used to be (and still am) slightly averse to it. Maybe it was the dark humor of twentieth century war literature, or maybe it had something to do with an internalized false dichotomy between aesthetics and politics. Some narratives of art production and history suggest that the focus of art should be aesthetic forms, and that is where its merit lies. But war art clearly shows that politics can be just as important. Maybe it was the fact that “war art” is frequented by white men as both artists and subjects, and I, of course, am not a white man. It also could have been a combination of these last two; so, art is allowed to be expressly political, but only as long as its subjects are white men?

Bearing these preconceptions in mind, I decided to finally make my way to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to see their exhibit, World War I and American Art, as a sort of challenge to myself — and I was blown away by what I saw. I highly recommend taking a trip into the city to see this! Admission does strike me as a little pricey, though, at $12 with a Swarthmore I.D.

The first and oldest art school in the United States, PAFA has been attended by a number of canonical American artists such as Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, and Benjamin West (whose birthplace and historic home are located on our very own campus). Their museum and permanent collection provide a unique survey of American art, so a traveling exhibit that explores World War I specifically through American art seems like a fitting endeavor for this institution. PAFA is doing groundbreaking work by putting this exhibit together; almost a century has passed since the war, yet this show is the first to ever examine it through the work of American artists.

This seems like reason enough to check out the show, but you should also go see this show because it is a nuanced, rich, and positively consuming experience of art made in a specific time and place. Specific moves made by Curator of Paintings at Minneapolis Institute of Art Robert Cozzolino Patrick, independent curator Anne Knutson, and Professor of Art at Wake Forest University David Lubin made this experience possible.

We see this curatorial expertise in the very first gallery, where we learn of the United States’ attempt at neutrality. The war began in 1914, but the United States did not join the Allies until 1917. In this gallery, the works of Childe Hassam and Marsden Hartley are hung opposite one another. While working in Berlin, Hartley fell in love with a German officer, Karl von Freyburg. Sadly, Freyburg died in battle during the first year of the war. Hartley mourned the death of his lover in his painting, incorporating the colorful symbols of the German army. Hartley’s paintings feature flat planes of bright color and somewhat confusing, abstracted compositions, all reminiscent of German Expressionism and Cubism. It is important to note that Germany fought on the side of the Central Powers — opposite the Allies and, eventually, the United States. When Hartley returned to the United States, he was often accused of pro-German sentiment, which he denied.

What an interesting body of work to put in dialogue with the paintings of Hassam, which are painted in a style clearly evoking French Impressionism. Hassam was a pro-interventionist, meaning he supported the United States joining the war and fighting on the side of the Allies. His paintings seem, at first, to depict merely the busy streets of New York during the seasons, much like Monet’s own street scenes. A closer look, however, reveals the ever-looming presence of war. The flags of Allied nations hang with the American flag over the heads of city pedestrians, functioning as both symbols of support and reminders of war. This first gallery warms the viewers up to the nuance in American understandings of the war and art made at the time. Hartley’s use of German imagery was personal and politicized by his American audience, but the intentional call-to-arms communicated in Hassam’s paintings are rendered less conspicuously by their lighthearted aesthetic of Impressionism.

As you can see, it is impossible to leave the show without an increased historical knowledge of World War I. This is an excellent show for history buffs and novices alike, because the narrative established by the art is not only captivating, but also comprehensive and polyphonic. We see through the portraits of James VanDerZee and the paintings of Harlem Hellfighter Horace Pippin the roles Black men played in the war as soldiers and artists. Lithographs and posters, such as Ernest H. Baker’s For Every Fighter / A Woman Worker poster, highlight what roles women were asked to play back home, while paintings by Jane Peterson show their work in the Red Cross. The show’s amalgam of posters reveals so much about the war: some of them idealizing the body of the male soldier to push men towards the army while non-interventionist political cartoons and publications satirized these same images. The show subverts and complicate dominant narratives of World War I. In addition to brushing up on my history, I felt my preconceptions of war art challenged and engaged with throughout the show, and I left with a newfound appreciation of war art and what it can do.

Finally, the exhibit has so many surprises. Hartley and Hassam were obviously fair game for this show, but who knew that Georgia O’Keefe, John Singer Sargent, Andrew Wyeth, and Man Ray also created art related to the war? Not me! The show also features one of the most famous posters of the twentieth century: James Montgomery Flagg’s I Want You for the U.S. Army poster, the well-known portrait of Uncle Sam. Art spills out from the enclosed rooms of the Brooks Gallery into the hallways of PAFA’s Hamilton building, but the art featured in the hallways physically distinguished on purpose — it highlights the work of contemporary American artists in response to World War I.

PAFA has also organized a number of events (sadly, not free) in conjunction with this show that might be interesting to check out. These events include film screenings of Shoulder Arms and On All Heights Is Peace at the International House, as well as a lecture delivered by sculptor Sabin Howard on his World War I memorial commission in D.C. The show will continue to be on view until April 9th, after which it will move on to the New-York Historical Society, May 23 to Sept. 3. Go see this show!

Despite strain, writing course requirement to remain unchanged for the near future

in Around Campus/News by

As the class of 2019 completes the sophomore planning process, and students look ahead toward deciding their future courses, disparities in writing-intensive course offerings between departments has initiated few discussions of changes to the program by the Office of the Provost.

One of multiple requirements students have to complete before graduation, the writing course requirement prescribes students to complete three designated W courses. Those courses must also be completed in at least two divisions. Courses are determined to be writing courses after a professor applies through the college’s Curriculum Committee. Professors describe their course to the committee, submit the syllabus, and the committee determines if some modifications are needed before the registrar can mark the course as a W course. The Curriculum Committee consists of the four division chairs, the registrar, the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, the Associate Provost for Educational Programs, three students, and the Provost.

Provost Tom Stephenson further elaborated on the Curriculum Committee’s process for determining writing courses.

“It’s not really a vote. We just talk about it and try to reach consensus. If there are serious objections raised, then those get fed back to the faculty member,” he said.

Courses that involve a lot of writing are not necessarily designated as official writing courses. That designation depends on a professor’s decision to apply through the Curriculum Committee. Furthermore, while writing courses do not necessarily have to include involvement of the college’s Writing Center and its Writing Associates, many do. Associate Professor of English literature and Director of the Writing Associate Program Jill Gladstein further explained the Writing Center’s role in helping professors provide writing courses to students.

“I am not directly responsible for the W courses. If a W course requests to have a WA, I will assign somebody, but as far as overseeing the implementation of W courses, that takes place more through the Curriculum Committee,” she said. “When the original proposal was written up for W courses, in there, I believe it said that writing courses would have priority over having WAs assigned. But, you didn’t have to.”

In regard to the demand for WAs over the years, Gladstein explained that there hasn’t been a decline.

“There are some classes like BIO 001 and BIO 002 that use WAs all the time. That predates me,” she said.

Gladstein also mentioned other large classes like PSYCH 025 and EDUC 014 that utilize multiple WAs.

“There are certain departments and courses that have utilized WAs since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for around 15 years. And then there’s always a rotating faculty. Some new faculty come in and learn about the program and they decide to utilize WAs with their courses,” continued Gladstein.

While writing courses have been offered in every department at least once in the past, there are disparities in the distribution of writing courses across academic departments, especially in regard to departments that have undergone significant enrollment pressures in the past few years.

Since the fall of 2011, there has been one writing course offered in the economics department and 28 in the political science department. Compared to other departments that have experienced less enrollment pressure like the history department, there has been a more significant amount of writing courses offered. Over the same time period, 61 writing courses and sections of courses were offered in the history department. Some honors theses sections were marked W while others were not.

Stephenson offered an explanation for why this disparity exists.

“Part of the requirement for writing courses is there needs to be active mentoring of students in writing. Over the course there’s supposed to be a process of revision that may or may not involve WAs. And so, there’s a perception that it involves significant work and time investment by the faculty member. As a result, it is allowed but not required that faculty can cap enrollment of writing courses at 15,” he said.

Stephenson went on to say that departments that are under enrollment pressures like political science and economics don’t offer first year seminars or writing courses, leaving writing courses to be offered by smaller departments.

Professor of religion Steven Hopkins explained his reasoning for having his Patterns of East Asian Religions class be a writing course, despite the class exceeding more than 30 students.

“It is something that I’ve done since the beginning when I inherited this class. We’ve always done it in the department. Our intro courses have often been linked to writing courses, because writing is important to our department, particularly drafts and re-writes. And so, for the past years, I’ve kept it that way because I value the process,” he said. “It is difficult to deploy WAs. It takes time and energy from the professor. You have to have patience to deal with students that are scheduled and getting schedules on time. Logistically, I think maybe a lot of my peers think it’s a bit unwieldy if you have a large class, to manage WAs along with everything else.”

Professor of economics Mark Kuperberg also provided a similar explanation for why there is a significant lack of writing courses in some departments.

“Writing courses are a supply and demand thing. From the supply side, there’s this whole issue of freeing up professors and what other professors will have to teach in terms of total amount of students. On the demand side is whether a professor even wants to teach a writing course,” he said.

Kuperberg also predicted that this lack of writing courses would not change in the future. According to him, the college’s plans to increase the student body, increase the amount of faculty, and decrease the amount of courses professors must teach from five to four per year give a net effect of increasing the amount of students professors must teach in the department. This would further decrease the possibility of the economics department offering more writing courses in the future.

However, Kuperberg did not necessarily see a lower amount of writing courses in high enrollment departments as a bad thing.

“The writing course is also a clever way of incentivizing students to take courses in under enrolled departments. The highly enrolled departments are going to be less willing to offer writing courses, the lower enrolled departments are more willing to offer writing courses. Writing is something dependent on the subject. But, good writing is good writing, I believe. Wherever you take a writing course, it should improve your writing. It does have the side effect of pushing students into less enrolled departments. That’s not a bad thing necessarily,” he said.

Hopkins also agreed that the writing course requirement has been useful in exposing more students to the department.

However, some students like Sam Wallach Hanson ’18 wished that writing courses would have been useful in the economics department.

“I would have loved to learn more about writing for economics before jumping into some of the higher level courses. I’m also now about to enter my senior year with only two of my three writing requirements completed, as neither my major nor my minor offers any writing courses. I’ve enjoyed the writing courses I’ve taken in other departments, but I wish I could have taken W courses that were a bit more applicable to my areas of study,” said Hanson.

Ava Shafiei ’19, a WA, also shared her critique of the current writing course requirement.

“It’s not necessarily the amount of W courses that’s a problem. I think it’s that they’re distributed unevenly across departments, and that different professors and different departments treat WA courses with different levels of not only rigor but different pedagogical styles, and I think that makes a difficult for students to really gain the writing skills they need for want at college,” she said.

For other students, like Mohammad Boozarjohmehri ’19,  fulfilling the writing course requirement did not provide any difficulty.

“I met all my requirements, and I didn’t even know I met them all,” he quipped.

Despite the disparity in the amount of writing courses between departments, Stephenson signaled that there would not be concrete changes to the writing course requirement in the near future. He did mention, however, that the college’s Council on Educational Policy has been in the process of re-thinking graduation requirements.

“CEP, responsible for more broad-range curricular planning, is looking more generally at graduation requirements as a whole. And the writing course requirement is a big graduation requirement topic. One of the issues on our agenda is to think more holistically about graduation requirements. That work has been underway for a while, and we haven’t reached any conclusions. We’ve collected some data about the writing requirement, but haven’t really had the opportunity to digest it,” said Stephenson.

That data concerns polling departments about what sort of writing they do in their curriculum that is designated in writing courses versus non writing courses. According to Stephenson, one of the main criticisms of the writing course requirement learned so far is that there are very writing intensive courses that do not carry the W designation.

If the CEP does come up with a policy proposal to change the writing course requirement, the proposal would be voted on by faculty and need to be passed by a simple majority after public discussions. Also, the new policy change would only affect future students, and not ones currently enrolled. However, Stephenson noted that he does not see a policy change happening for a long time.  

News editor Ryan Stanton also contributed to this article.

Questions surrounding tenure process on the rise, students voice concerns

in Around Campus/News by

Questions surrounding the overall tenure process have arisen in the wake of the celebration surrounding Professor Sa’ed Atshan’s recent placement on a tenure track position in the Peace and Conflict Studies program. Many concerns are about which professors get tenure as the hows and whys are seemingly unclear.

Tenure track positions, as explained by English literature Department Chair Professor Peter Schmidt, are integral to every department in the college.

“For most departments, the majority of their positions are tenure line positions, so somebody on the tenure track is going to come up for evaluation … the evaluation always happens in the sixth year,” he said.

Candidates going through the process find themselves under intensive review, as Schmidt goes on to explain.

“People are here for three years, they get a preliminary evaluation, like how well is their teaching going. Student letters are collected from people who have taken classes from them, but also they get a preliminary read on their scholarship and how it’s progressing, … and then three years later, the same thing happens,” he said.

The remaining part of the process, he explains, is just as rigorous as the initial three years.

“After six years, after the tenure review, then people are either accepted for tenure to stay here, or they have to leave, and we start a new process again with hiring. Later on, after you get tenure, you’re called an associate professor. After that, eight to ten years can go by, and then you get evaluated again, … and after you pass that review, you become a full professor,” he said.

Student knowledge about the process and all of its intricacies is very much limited, as they may be unaware of a professor’s status on the tenure track. However, many questions center around how tenure track positions are awarded in the first place. The differences between visiting professors and tenured professors, Schmidt explains, are in the hiring practices.

“Tenure positions, you’re definitely supposed to do a national search. So that means putting out ads and then reading tons and tons of applications and then interviewing about 12 to 15 people, usually. And then of those, usually a handful of them get invited to campus to meet everybody, including students, when they’re in the running for a job … Adjuncts or temporary positions, whether it’s in the sciences or humanities or the social sciences, those all tend to be much more local searches,” he said.

There are distinctions between the titles held by professors at the college delineating their status on the track, as well as marking those who are not tenure track. The title, however, does not serve as a basis for which students interact with a professor. Indeed, students gravitate towards professors for many reasons, finding mentorship and forming meaningful relationships with them. It is for this reason that problems arise when a non-tenured professor leaves the college on the account that their position was only temporary.

In tandem with this, the college’s interdisciplinary programs traditionally do not have tenure track positions as they are not stand alone departments. With the lack of tenure track positions within interdisciplinary programs, students face a loss on two ends: a professor with whom their feelings resonate and an overall loss to the program.

“Often they [interdisciplinary programs] just borrow professors from other departments, so nobody’s trained solely in that area, they will lend courses to it. Sometimes the courses will be cross listed, that kind of thing. They try to have an introductory course, like to Black Studies or a capstone for the students that minor in it. So those programs kind of fit into the tenure program, but at the moment, most of the teaching is done by borrowing professors from other departments” Schmidt said.

Valeria Ochoa ’19 is saddened at the prospect of losing Professor Milton Machuca, Coordinator of the Latin American and Latino Studies program.

“He founded the program here, and is not being given tenure track … it’s not right,” they said.

Machuca, a Visiting Assistant professor, is indeed not on a tenure track. His contract is set to expire with the conclusion of the Spring 2017 semester and is, as not now, not being considered for renewal. He is popular amongst his students, many not understanding why he is not being kept. The securing of his position was not done via national search, hence the temporality of his contract. Placing the blame is hard to do, as the ability of a department to even begin such a search is in the hands of a college committee.

“There’s a committee called the Council on Educational Policy that has some faculty, students and staff on it including the President and the Provost, It’s a college wide committee: that is the committee that decides which departments can do a tenure track search for the next year if there’s an opening or if somebody retires … lots of departments every year are disappointed that they’re not allowed to do a search. But the search would work the same for an interdisciplinary program as it would for a department, the standards are all supposed to be equal,” Schmidt said.

The first interdisciplinary program to successfully secure a tenure track position was Peace and Conflict Studies in 2016 with Professor Ashtan. This was after the program had already existed for 25 years and had been attempting to secure a tenured position since 2012 according to a previously written Phoenix article. Students are not oblivious to the struggle of interdisciplinary programs. Brandon Ekweonu ’20 is of the opinion that more needs to be done to give merit to the programs.

I cannot say I know much about the how the tenure process works, but I can say this: I think programs like Latin American and Latino Studies and Black Studies deserve more attention than they get, not only on our campus, but on campuses around the country. As someone with a genuine interest in both of these areas, seeing that they are not established as departments makes me feel like they are not recognized as ‘valuable’ enough,” he said.

Professor Schmidt remains positive about the possibility of tenure tracks being awarded to interdisciplinary programs in the future.

“For years, all of the tenure positions were within particular disciplines like Chemistry or Biology or English literature. For the first time last year, a position in tenure track has been entirely awarded to an interdisciplinary program … that means that the faculty voted to do this. So now, interdisciplinary programs are have the chance to grow in a way that makes them have the same type of status as a department does … I think there’s a sense that down the road some of the other interdisciplinary programs will get tenure track too,” he said.

Eyes will be on the college’s tenure track process as students attempt to stave the loss of their beloved professor. With the historical award of a tenure track position in Peace and Conflict Studies, the outlook for change has become that much brighter. For students of Professor Machuca, this change cannot come soon enough.

Evaluating the safety of our staff in a snowstorm

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

The snow piles up on the ground outside, finally beginning to slow, yet its remnants promise to keep the conditions for the day dangerous and uncertain. Branches and fallen trees block pathways in the borough, and some residential areas darken as a result of damaged power lines.

Meanwhile, on campus, students roam the college and desperately hope their classes will be cancelled. Some students walk up the path of Parrish Beach, trudging the path that the essential employees from the grounds crew worked to clear. As these Swatties entered Parrish, however, they may have been surprised to notice that, despite many essential staff members reporting to work, the administrative office hall was practically a ghost town. Many administrative members deemed the snowy conditions too severe to come to work, despite the fact that required staff, including many EVS workers, dining staff, and grounds workers, were required to report to work in spite of the storm.

We at the Phoenix find this unfair as it places an unequal burden on essential staff relative to the administration. While we recognize that many people could not make it to work due to the conditions and while we respect the need to practice safety precautions, it is absolutely unfair that many higher administrators did not have to report to work while many staff members were not given the same options to practice such precautions. These staff members were not allowed to follow these precautions despite the fact that they are not paid as high a salary as the deans, and many do not have as reliable winter transportation considering some depend on public transportation. We believe that it sends the wrong message to staff members in our community that that their safety is not as important as the safety of other employees. This is especially a problem in that it demonstrates a hierarchy of importance in the college that respects the decisions and safety of higher administration without equally respecting this integrity of other staff members.

Of course, we at the Phoenix recognize that some staff truly are essential to the maintenance of the college, and that it would have been nearly impossible to maintain the college without these employees. For example, some members of grounds crew were absolutely essential in ensuring that paths remained clear and, thanks tremendously to them, students were still able to roam the paths of campus and make it to their scheduled classes without trudging through inches of snow. Dining staff in Sharples, Essie’s, Kohlberg, and Science Center were needed so that students could still eat properly in spite of the storm. And to be fair, we at the Phoenix recognize that the college did not necessarily make all EVS staff report to work, but left it up to “relevant departments” to decide if all staff members were absolutely necessary.

However, we at the Phoenix believe this becomes an issue when all of these essential staff members are expected to report to work, yet many members of the administration and higher staff do not need to follow the same expectations. While some of the administration may work from home, it still does not change the fact that they are not standing in solidarity with the essential staff who have no choice but to report to work. Clearly, changes in college policy need to be made to ensure that these staff members are still respected and treated fairly amongst other members of the college community. As a result, we at the Phoenix call for Swarthmore to either increase their expectations of the administration and higher staff to report to work or that the required staff members who do report to work receive extra compensation and respect for their time.


There’s Always Magic in the Air on Broadway

in Arts by

What’s the one thing you absolutely must do while you’re in New York City? The obvious answer, at least to me, is to have a Broadway marathon. Four shows, two days, and one very starstruck musical theater aficionado: here’s the story of an amazing, hectic, tour de force spring break experience that still feels a little like a fever dream.

It all began on Saturday afternoon with a rear mezzanine seat ticket to the Imperial Theater for “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” a musical based on Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” The cast kicked off the show by introducing their characters: “Balaga is fun, Bolkonsky is crazy, Mary is plain, Dolokhov is fierce, Hélène is a slut, Anatole is hot, Marya is old-school, Sonya is good, Natasha is young and Andrey isn’t here!” In other words, if you didn’t quite manage to muddle your way through Tolstoy’s dense prose, don’t worry: “The Great Comet’s” got it all summarized for you.

And then, of course, there was Pierre, the adorably bewildered, awkward count who is perhaps better known in his day job as singer-songwriter Josh Groban. If there’s any good reason to see this musical, it’s his mournful solo in “Dust and Ashes,” i.e. an existential crisis set to music and performed by one of Broadway’s greatest baritones.

The entire show was remarkably innovative. There were strips of empty space between seating sections throughout the house where the ensemble stomped, sang and twirled. They tossed packaged dumplings into the audience and handed out little plastic egg shakers, and the myriad of lightbulbs hanging over the audience’s heads were lowered to create the illusion of a star-filled sky in one breathtakingly magical moment. But the ensemble—dressed in crop tops, basketball tanks, leggings, jeans and sneakers—felt out of place with the setting and the main cast’s period-appropriate attire, especially during what I’ve dubbed “the rave scene.” Kudos to the creators for the gutsy design choice, but did they really have to have glowsticks and light-up shoes in what was supposed to be a 19th-century Russian pub?

    “We really shouldn’t,” I heard one ensemble member say to another at one point, as they body-rolled their way across the space directly behind my seat.

“Come here,” laughed the other, and they proceeded to make out in the middle of a number.

It was a wild ride. I was thoroughly amused.

Going from this chaotic glory of a musical to the sugar-sweet “Waitress” later that night (also with a rear mezzanine seat) was one heck of a transition. Based on the critically acclaimed film of the same name by Adrienne Shelly (though the musical’s book was written by Jessie Nelson), the story of Jenna, a small-town waitress and expert pie-maker who longs to escape her abusive marriage, sounds almost like the plot of a Hallmark movie. But the cast and creative team somehow managed to avoid falling into the trope of a mere feel-good show, expertly navigating their way past cliches and Mary Sues with large contributions from Sara Bareilles (a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter-turned-Tony-nominated Broadway lyricist and composer).

Perhaps the most fun part of the show were the pies. Not the pies in the musical, of which there were many. I mean the pies being sold during the intermission for more than this broke college student was willing to fork over. Judging by the moans of ecstasy (this is, in fact, not an exaggeration) of those sitting next to me as they bit into their key lime and pecan pies, they must have been the height of culinary excellence, and the little collectible tins they came in were a cute touch.

But beyond the pies, the incomparable Jessie Mueller (Tony, Drama Desk and Grammy Award-winner) was the one who truly made the show. Her vibrant soprano voice carried all of the music with polished ease. “She Used to Be Mine,” the musical’s trademark number, is touching in its own right, but Mueller’s incredible range of emotions transformed it into a heartbreaker. Needless to say, she received a well-deserved standing ovation at curtain call.

From Becky and Dawn, Jenna’s funny and lovable coworkers and friends, to Dr. Pomatter, the handsome gynecologist with a severe case of foot-in-mouth, the supporting cast rounded out the performance with a little attitude and a lot of love to create about as great of a musical as is possible when it’s set entirely in a Southern pie diner. Which, as it turns out, is pretty darn amazing. I didn’t quite dream of pies when I flopped down on an air mattress in the living room that night, but the show definitely clung to me long after I’d left the theater for my friend’s sister’s apartment (thanks for sparing me NYC’s agonizingly high costs of living, Rachel).

The next day, I was off to “Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic,” a.k.a. the Harry Potter fan musical that somehow made its way onto Broadway. Maybe it was the trademark Hufflepuff likeability or the tongue-in-cheek critiques of the Harry Potter universe, but there was something about the show that enabled it to hold its own amongst the flashing neon lights of bigger-name stars in bigger-name shows for me. It was a pleasant surprise,albeit not the biggest one.

“Oh, hey, I think know her, she was in my year at Swarthmore,” said the person sitting next to me in the rear orchestra section, pointing at a picture of one of the cast members before the show.

In the characteristically Swawkward conversation with Jonathan Hui ’12 that followed, I learned that the Hufflepuff character Sally (whom Potterheads may recognize as an allusion to Sally-Ann Perks) in the musical was played by Jessie Cannizzaro ’12. Evidently the Swat bubble doesn’t just exist at Swat, it follows you around. But the light-hearted musical was a hilarious foray into the world of side characters J.K. Rowling somehow neglected to develop through seven books (and eight movies), the central theme of house pride was made only slightly ironic by the sense of collegiate allegiance I had by having a Swarthmore graduate in the show. I left that theater with a sense of validation for being a Hufflepuff and a pretty sweet “#ThirdOrNothing” T-shirt.

That night, at last, was the final and most highly anticipated musical of my trip: “Kinky Boots,” or, more specifically, Todrick Hall’s last performance as Lola in “Kinky Boots.” I’ve been in awe of the singer, dancer, actor, director, choreographer, and YouTuber’s work for many years, so I was beyond thrilled to get to meet him at the stage door after the show, alongside a crowd of appreciative fans, and, while I was there, I managed to obtain several of the other cast members’ autographs, including Taylor Louderman (Lauren) and Marcus Neville (George).

As with most final performances, the entire show became a tribute of sorts to the departing cast member; I was glad I’d seen it once before, so my “Kinky Boots” experience wasn’t entirely centered around Hall (much as I love all that he embodies). Still, Hall’s performance was nothing short of spectacular, from his tearful duet with West End-exchange actor Killian Donnelly (Charlie) in “Not My Father’s Son” to his soaring rendition of “Hold Me In Your Heart.” By the end of the show, I was honored to have watched him in the role, and in a cushy center mezzanine seat, no less.

In his parting speech at curtain call, Hall reminded the audience why musical theater is so important as a safe space for marginalized groups. When “Kinky Boots” premiered, it was a potentially controversial ode to love and acceptance regardless of gender or sexuality, and it was rewarded with rave reviews, accruing Tony, Grammy and Olivier (the British equivalent of the Tony) Awards. Centered around the unlikely friendship between a reluctant shoe factory owner and a fabulous drag queen and featuring a kickass score by Cyndi Lauper, it was uplifting, tragic, sassy, and hysterical by turns, calling out to the audience to “just be who you wanna be” without turning it into a heavy-handed battle cry. The performers jokingly addressed the audience on several occasions during the musical as “Ladies, gentlemen, and those who have yet to make up their minds.” The theater itself upheld this acceptance of gender fluidity with a small but significant addition to the customary signs outside the bathrooms, stating “Gender diversity is welcome here. Please use the restroom that best fits your gender identity or expression.”

It is my one regret that I did not manage to acquire a dazzling pair of Price and Son six-inch-heel boots(the company is really missing out with that lack of merchandising). But, in all earnestness, everything about the show from the choreography to the set design to the witty banter between characters raised the bar in entertainment “thigh-high.” The closing number, “Raise You Up/Just Be,” had me humming and tapping my toes all the way through the long and mildly nerve-wracking subway journey to a different friend’s house to crash (thanks, Ruth). It was a sensational romp from start to finish, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to conclude my whirlwind trip.

The complex and intricate combination of factors that musical theater utilizes in storytelling has always enthralled me. At Swat, I sweep stages, carry props, and run cues on the light board in LPAC, dreaming of a future in which I get to push the button that drops the chandelier in “The Phantom of the Opera” or track Elphaba’s movements in “Wicked” with a spotlight from a little nook in the set onstage. But it’s one thing to be behind the scenes of a production and another entirely to be sitting in the audience. I typically prefer the former, unable to suspend my disbelief well enough to truly immerse myself in the show. It’s odd, then, that I keep returning to Broadway as an audience member, captivated from the moment I watched my first show in the big city four years ago. “The Great Comet,” “Waitress,” “Puffs,” and “Kinky Boots,” they’re as different as four musicals can be, but there’s a certain quality that they all share, something I can only describe as “Broadway magic.” It’s in the massive billboards’ flashing cries, the snippets of overheard conversation in another language on the streets and the scent of overpriced meat on rice from street carts on every corner. The place itself is a living, breathing urban fairytale, and it’s always a privilege for me to spend some time in the playground of imagination that a good Broadway show embodies.

Caught up in this fantastical whirl of bright lights and brighter stars, it’s no wonder that “The Great Comet” asks its audience, “Are you ready to wake up?”

Shifting narratives: a conversation on justice with Bryan Stevenson

in Campus Journal by
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    Woodley, Stevenson, and Reeves make their way to the reception dinner.
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    Stevenson meeting John.
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    A token of thanks: Reeves gifts a Miles Davis album to Stevenson.

“My mom just texted me to make sure that I tell you she saw you on “60 Minutes,” and she says thank you for helping Mr. Hinton,” I laughed to Mr. Bryan Stevenson as we waited for sound check to begin. He smiled and called her all too kind, with a humble softness that surprised me.

The man in front of me is arguably one of the most important criminal justice advocates of the moment. As the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson works daily to eliminate unfair and excessive sentencing, exonerate death row prisoners, and shine light on inmate abuse, including abuse of juveniles and the mentally ill. He recently won a critical ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, which deems mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger unconstitutional.

Ray Hinton, the man my mom excitedly texted about, recently served 30 years in prison on death row for a crime that he did not commit. Today Hinton is free because Stevenson fought tirelessly for justice as his lead attorney for 16 years.

And now he is here at Swarthmore. According to scholar in residence Arto Woodley, the planning process to bring Stevenson to campus has been in the works for about two years. Ben Roebuck ’17 is credited with the initial vision, and the organizing itself was a collaborative effort of Woodley, the President’s Office, Maurice Eldridge ’61, Executive Director of the Lang Center Ben Berger, and Keith Reeves, Professor and Chair Political Science and Faculty Director of the Urban Inequalities and Incarceration Program. The work hasn’t stopped with them. The Black Cultural Center, Lang Performing Arts team, Communications, Media Services, Public Safety, the Bookstore, and the Inn at Swarthmore all labored to make today flawless. Woodley particularly connects the significance of Stevenson’s visit with Reeves’s work in incarceration, research with the Chester Community Charter School on the impact of children who have an incarcerated family member or parent, and with Swarthmore Black Alumni Urban Fellowships to connect students to research and learning opportunities in the field. Through this engaged scholarship approach, there is hope to foster opportunities for deep learning, grounded action, and social change.

As for myself, Stevenson is a long time hero of mine, and so I walked into our interview with a great sense of honor, wondering if I will be able to get anything out besides admiration. I also wondered if it will feel like I’m listening to a famous TED-talker who’s been watched by over 4 million people. It did.

Stevenson and I first spoke about about his critically acclaimed memoir, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.”  I spent last semester in an Inside-Out style class called Urban Crime and Punishment, facilitated by Professor Nina Johnson and Philadelphia Programs coordinator Kristi Polizzano,  hosted in nearby Chester State Prison. Half of my classmates are “outsiders” or current college students and half are “insiders” or current inmates. Here, Just Mercy was on our reading list.

I had read the memoir in the past, but the context added unforeseen dimensions. We were in a prison, it was during the election season, and, on a personal level, someone who is near to my heart and had been struggling recently ended up in this system of pain and confusion. The concept of mercy took on a whole new meaning.

A central theme of the read is a commitment to understanding that none of us are the worst thing we’ve ever done. An inside classmate of mine brought up a revelation that would stick with us all. Opening up, he admitted that there were stories of injustice and abuse that made him put the book down and cry. However, he found it more important to recognize which individuals he did not find himself crying for.

“Why do we automatically humanize some people more easily than others?” I asked Stevenson, somewhat rhetorically. “More importantly, how can people actively work towards embracing mercy for everyone equally?”

He paused from autographing the stack of “Just Mercy” copies in front of him, many of which will be given back to incarcerated members of our Inside-Out classes.

“Well I think that’s the thing I’ve been most burdened by during my career,” Stevenson admitted.

“… when I leave the prison or the jail, and when I go into the courtroom I hear people talking about ‘rapists’ and ‘murderers’ and ‘robbers’ and’ ‘drug dealers’… as if these are the only words you need to understand that person, and what their value is, and what the appropriate punishment is.”

“When you reduce people to these labels, it makes it very easy to be hostile and punitive and harsh,” he explained. “You’re not being honest if you only focus on that one moment when something violent happens and [not] all the moments that lead up to that, and all the moments that follow that.”

The work starts with getting people to see that there is always a larger story, even when someone does something bad or violent. He admitted that it is indeed easier to identify and sympathize with folks who have done nothing wrong, most notably children. However, our sympathy must extend even to those who we feel are most unworthy of it. Stevenson appreciated my use of the concept “radical humanization” to process this sentiment, a term coined by our very own Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Sa’ed Atshan.

“I’m in more of a role as a prosecutor … I want to indict our country for its silence on this history: the fact that we have enslaved people with very little accountability, or lynching, or segregation. But I want to do it with an awareness shaped by my criminal justice work, which is that we’re not just a ‘genocide nation’ or ‘slave nation,’” Stevenson said.

He draws a powerful analogy between our nation and our nation’s many prisoners.

“Nobody gets out of prison or on parole without showing signs of remorse and acknowledgement. I do ultimately want liberation [for this country] rather than just punishment,” he said with firm kindness.

To my fascination, Stevenson describes his subversive interest in increasing our collective shame as a tool for societal progress.

“One of the challenges in this country is that we’ve become such a punitive society. We don’t feel comfortable acknowledging our mistakes because we fear the punishment that comes with wrongdoing,” he said.

“What we do to people in our jails and prisons is frequently shameful. If we experience that shame, if we recognize that shame, it’ll motivate us to do better. Shame is not a bad experience, it’s not a bad motive, it’s not a bad consciousness … if it leads to something restorative, redemptive.”

“Children are obviously an important part of your work. Right now in Philadelphia, advocates are working to overturn Act 33, which was a 1996 amendment to the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act …” I began.

Act 33 says that children under the age of 18 are to be automatically tried as adults and placed in adult facilities if they’re accused of a violent crime. I recently learned about this unusual, “tough-on-crime” era legislation from Philadelphia’s Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project. In some instances under this act, children, who often cannot afford bail, will sit in holding cells for years before their case moves to trial. And this is without even being convicted of a crime. In this political climate, how do we go about changing these dangerous laws and norms?

“I think we have to change the narratives that gave rise to those policies,” Stevenson nodded. “We let people come through our country, and say that some kids aren’t kids, and we allowed [them] to label these children as ‘superpredators’. So if you’re making policies for ‘superpredators,’ its very easy to say put them in adult jails and prisons and treat them like the worst of the worst.”

But that whole notion of a superpredator is a lie, originating in the “tough-on-crime” political discourse of the 1990s. “It’s actually kind of a racially influenced lie,” Stevenson acknowledged. “We’ve got to get people to confront that and understand that. And once we do, we have to make a new commitment to children.”

We discuss the current state of education: how our commitment to children is formally measured by how we treat privileged children. Stevenson advocates that we radicalize education through reorientation: we must first look at how we treat the children who are dealing with trauma and abuse, neglect and poverty.

“I want the Department of Education to make suspension rates and expulsion rates one of the key metrics of whether a school is good or bad [as opposed to the current metrics of test scores and performances]. Because if you suspend a lot of students and you expel a lot of students … that means you’re failing some of the children who most desperately need education as a mechanism for changing outcomes.”

I was reminded of a recent presentation by Princeton University Professor Ruha Benjamin, who specializes in the very-interdisciplinary study of science, medicine, biotechnology, race-ethnicity and gender, health, and biopolitics. She demonstrated that if you type in the word “underserved” and then the word “overserved” into Microsoft Word, one of the words will appear with a red line under it. You can guess which one, and what that says about how we accept some communities as problematic and others as natural.

In terms of the concrete challenges marginalized students face, Stevenson says that they are in some ways greater than they’ve ever been.

“I had to deal with segregation as a child, but I didn’t have to deal with a school system that was determined to criminalize me and demonize me,” he said.

Conscious of time, I know that there is one last question I need to ask him. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ultimately wanting America not to become post-racial, but to become post-racist.

“[Ta-Nehisi] Coates articulates this as ‘we should not seek a world where the black race and the white race live in harmony, but a world in which the terms black and white have no real political meaning.’” I invited Stevenson to comment on his colleague’s vision and how realistic is it that we’ll one day reach a point where such racial terms are essentially apolitical.

“I agree that the objective is to not eliminate racial difference or diversity, but to make it not meaningful in a ways that burdens some and benefits others,” he explained.

“You should be able to live in a world where … if you have a son, you feel great. If you have a daughter you feel great. If your child is black you feel great, if your child is white, if your child is brown … we don’t live in a world like that. There are preferences and challenges that you’re going to have to meet and overcome. As long as that’s true, none of us can really claim to be free,” Stevenson said. This invokes for me a sentiment reminiscent of late voting rights activist, Fannie Lou Hammer: “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

The logic here is compelling. If you have something that you didn’t earn, while you’re standing to next to somebody that doesn’t have anything and who is suffering, it should implicate your ability to enjoy what you have. You’re burdened by that (“if you’re a human being with decency and compassion” Stevenson clarified, but with the optimism that most human beings indeed are.)

“So we all have an interest in creating that world. And I do think it’s achievable,” Stevenson encouraged.  “We’ve seen narratives shift. We just have to see on this issue.”

Domestic violence seems to serve as one such case of shifting narratives. Fifty years ago, we did not as a society value the victims of domestic violence like we do today. We gave voices to women who are suffering, we began to recognize how they’re not responsible for the violence they receive; all of which serves as powerful evidence for the capacity to change. Stevenson argues that we have to become the same way when it comes to race and racial equity.

At the end of our conversation, Stevenson thanked me for taking the time to interview him. I cannot overstate his genuine humbleness.

In the all-too impressive company of Reeves, Stevenson, and Woodley, we made our way to the Inn at Swarthmore, where I joined former classmates, local community advocates, and others involved in Stevenson’s campus visit. Here, we’re hosting a dinner in Stevenson’s honor.

I was greeting others when I notice an older a man with a pink shirt and glasses, smiling brightly and laughing with some friends of mine. As I’m introduced to him and shake his hand, a strange sense of familiarity comes over me.

“Where do I know you from?” I immediately ask.

“You look familiar too,” the man beamed.

A few months ago, I had participated in a think-tank style workshop hosted in Graterford State Prison, where insiders and outsiders came together to discuss juvenile justice. John* was a juvenile lifer, meaning that the state had intended for him to serve his life in prison for a crime he committed as an adolescent.

After decades of waiting, John was released from prison two weeks ago. And now here we were — together on the outside — celebrating the work of Stevenson and those like him.

After dinner, we returned to campus to find hundreds of people eagerly awaiting the main event: Stevenson’s talk to the community. The hour of storytelling left many of us feeling as inspired as ever to do our part in the collective struggle against excessive punishment, mass incarceration, and racial inequality … all while keeping mercy at the forefront.  

“His lecture was a perfect capstone to Black History Month because of his work with injustice in the U.S. of incarceration and Swarthmore College’s tie to that same phenomena,” Woodley explained. “[He] reminds us that this country still struggles with recognizing and dignifying the humanity of people, with people of color and especially African Americans. The injustice in the system of incarceration is a proxy for the larger societal challenge America has yet to conquer.”

While it’s impossible to share all of Stevenson’s insights, I find it important to reiterate the four solutions he offered to our legacy of injustice and inequality. First is to “get proximate” to the communities most in need. Second, as mentioned earlier, is to change the narratives that sustain unjust practices and policies. His third solution is to stay hopeful as a form of power. Finally, Stevenson dares us all to make the conscious decision, to become more comfortable with doing uncomfortable things for a greater good.

He speaks of great losses and wins. From heartbreaking goodbyes with clients who are executed, to the feeling of purpose when he’s able to walk a client to freedom. We responded with tears and standing ovations, even from those of us who had heard many of the stories shared before (myself included).

“What is it about us [as a society] that we want to kill all the broken people?” Stevenson finally asks the audience, invoking the sense of desperation needed to address this reality.

“I do what I do because I’m broken too, but there’s a power in brokenness.”

SGO adds speaker of the senate position

in Around Campus/News by


Swarthmore’s Student Government Organization voted to add a new speaker of the senate position to its executive board at the end of the Fall 2016 semester. This change to the constitution, which required a two-thirds vote of the executive board, will create a position that will aid SGO’s senate in having productive and efficient meetings. The position was created with both the long term aims of making SGO more representative of the student body as well as the short term aims of making SGO more productive.

SGO’s constitution was ratified in 2014 and the speaker of the senate amendment is meant to fulfill some of the organization’s goals. In the long term, the change meant to continue the improvements made by the college after the Spring of Discontent. The Spring of Discontent references the high emotions felt by many groups on campus during the Spring 2013 semester as the college attempted to respond to a number of issues, including urination incidents on the door of the Intercultural Center, incidences of sexual assault which led to Title IX and Clery Act complaints as well as a referendum to change or abolish Greek life. While not an inclusive list of all of the issues that contributed to the discontent, the overarching complaint of the Spring of Discontent was that students were not properly heard by the administration.

The intent behind the creation of SGO, formerly a ten-member student council nicknamed Stu-Co, was to make student government more representative of the student body and to increase student involvement. The amendment creating the Speaker of the Senate position is meant to accomplish the same goals, according to SGO Co-President Benjamin Roebuck ’17.

“The [change] allows greater expression and representation from the senate, which empowers class representatives and at-large senators to do the work that is in line with […] why the current structure of student government came about, in the wake of the Spring of Discontent [and] the lack of representation [that students felt], […] to give a stronger voice to students,” he said. “[Adding the Speaker of the Senate] codifies that, brings [the duties] into a singular organizing position, so there is someone who can directly represent senators on the executive board.”

Roebuck also described what the role of the Speaker of the Senate would be during meetings and indicated that the position’s purpose would be to make meetings efficient.

“The duties of Speaker of the Senate are to work with the co-presidents, shepherding referendums [and] agenda, [and] generally directing the meetings,” he said.

The Speaker of the Senate position is intended to make SGO more productive and more representative. However, it is unclear to many students what SGO does and how the organization works. Gabi Rubinstein ’20 expressed that what SGO does is unclear.

“I don’t really know how [SGO] works … that might be on me, but I haven’t seen much going on [from SGO],” said Rubinstein.

First years are not the only members of our community who find that they are unsure of what SGO does. Bilige Yang ’19 expressed that SGO’s job on campus was unclear.

“I have no idea what SGO does,” he said.

Junior Daniel Park ’18 has had more interaction with SGO but concluded that the organization carries little power within the college.

“SGO is part of Swarthmore’s, perhaps symbolic, commitment to having student voices heard in the college decisions […] the college does a good job of listening to students overall but when it comes down to it [SGO] is powerless,” he said

The lack of clarity in the constitution about SGO’s authority, to do besides creating its own organizational structure, may contribute to this as well. Adding the speaker of the senate position may solve SGO’s internal issues, but does not immediately make the role or power of SGO more clear.

Student senators expressed that the Speaker of the Senate position would improve SGO. At-Large Senator Lauren Savo ’20 described the function of the Speaker of the Senate and is optimistic about the change.

“My understanding is that it is supposed to give us senators more of a voice in the SGO environment. The Speaker of the Senate’s job is to be the buffer between the executive board and senators … SGO this year is very big on trying to hear the voices of everyone and represent everyone [and] trying to make SGO more of an efficient organization, [the Speaker of the Senate] is a step in that direction,” she said.

Class of 2019 Senator Gilbert Orbea ’19 noted the issues with the current structure. The executive board, the co-presidents, and the student senators were not communicating as effectively as the members of SGO wanted.

“A noted difficulty [was] in the way that the senate, as a group of students who are supposed to collaborate … the three bodies [student Senate, the executive board, and the co-presidents] were interacting in a way that wasn’t as smooth as they could be … [it] felt discombobulated. I have felt this since last year, [that there are] serious issues with retention of senators and a high turnover rate. Meetings lack brevity when they need brevity, and lack depth when they need that,” he said.

However, Orbea is optimistic about the change and listed some of the benefits he expects from the addition of the speaker of the senate position.

“[The change will cause] more efficient meetings, the senate body [will have] a go-to person … [and the speaker of the senate will] leverage power of the senate to balance the co-presidents,” he said.

The class of 2019 senator went on to say that he wants the Speaker of the Senate position to be instituted as soon as possible.

“I hope that we have an emergency election [to elect the speaker of the senate] this semester,” Orbea said.

The speaker of the senate position aims to make SGO more productive, and many are optimistic that it will accomplish this goal. The change adds an additional level of bureaucracy to SGO. The effects of the Speaker of the Senate will be unclear until after the election is held and the position is officially instituted.

Browning America: Into the alterity of mestizxs

in Campus Journal by

In the colonial lexicon of Latin America during the 19th century, mestizos were perceived as subordinate iterations of the white, European self. This class in the caste system consisted of people of mixed Spanish and indigena lineage, occupying the intermediate space of colonial society: not white enough, not brown enough.  

Mestizaje describes this process of interracial mixing and its cultural entanglements. By 1825, mixed bloods constituted 28.3% of Spanish America, according to Pew Research Center, and continued to threaten Spanish sovereignty.

Out of the precepts of colonial Latin America, however, mestizaje became less of a cry for assimilationism and more of a call for unification. It was instrumental to the new, Latin American states as a nation-building ideology to reject subaltern constructions of the colonial caste system and invigorate new diverse, social realities.

All history lessons aside, the concept of mestizaje has shifted once more in the contemporary era, evolving to be more than just a function of the state. It has become a social movement that has generated complex aesthetic dynamics and the recombination of structural realities.

This holds true even in the United States; according to another study by the Pew Research Center in 2008, 1 in 7 new marriages in the US were between two spouses of different races or ethnicities. Not only is this kind of relationship becoming more common, but also more normalized. In another study, Pew found that as of 2009, 83% of millennials approved of interracial dating.

And while the growing prevalence and acceptance of mestizaje shows prospects for changing social norms, mestizxs, or multiracial peoples, face new psychological conundrums. Here, we depart into the alterity of the contemporary mestizxs.

“I am not 100% anything.”

This is what Jordan Reyes ‘19 said to support his multiracial identity. With a mother from El Salvador and a father from California, Reyes was raised with an array of cultural influences. I asked him how he was able to reconcile his diverse racial and cultural origins.

“It’s hard to do so because I didn’t have a lot of El Salvadorian influence growing up. More than anything I had a lot of Cuban and Islander influences growing up,” he explained. “We lived in Miami for a couple years which is a highly Cuban area.”

For Reyes, he parallels his disconnect with his Salvadorian identity with his detachment from the cultural “aesthetics.”

“I can point out more aspects of my Mexican cultural identity; things like food, music, dance, history, art. I just don’t really know what makes up my El Salvadorian identity,” he said.

In confronting his multiracialness, Reyes finds that his challenges primarily manifest in linguistic barriers.

“Spanish was my first language, but after my mom came to this country, she was harassed a lot for not speaking English properly — she thought it was really important for her children to know English and to speak it without an accent. I was thrown into English classes from the get go,” he said. “After that, I kind of stopped speaking Spanish altogether.”

Growing up, he was targeted as being “not Mexican enough” for abandoning his Spanish proficiency. He saw the legitimacy of his identity begin to dissipate.

“You are not legitimately Mexican, you are not legitimately El Salvadorian, you don’t have a legitimate Latinx identity,” he said, echoing the sentiments of his childhood friends. “Yeah, I am El Salvadorian; yeah, I am Mexican. I take pride in both of them. I remember feeling like I always stuck out from my Mexican friends at home because I knew a lot about salsa and merengue and other cultural aesthetics.”

Similarly, he grapples with the idea of a “legitimate” cultural or racial identity in itself. Is there a set criterion that delineates inherent “Mexicanness” and “El Salvadorianness?” In what ways does this criterion manifest itself?

“Thinking about legitimacy in terms of who you are and what you are: does knowing more make you more?” he questions.

“Speak Spanish? Check. Have brown skin? Check.”

From Reyes’ experiences with his own interracial complexity, we see that interracial mixing describes more than just the hybridization of cultural practices and fusion of disparate communities. It describes the psychic status of the multiracial person, grappling with contending narratives.

“We are not exactly what used to be, and we are not exactly what is here now. There is growing consciousness of an ‘other’ and recognizing that I am that ‘other,’” he said.

While terms like mestizxs and mestizaje are entrapped in colonial vocabulary, in the contemporary era, the alterity of the mestizo class persists, even in the United States. Its story is fraught with visceral fears of displacement because of their failure to conform to either extremity of their racial and cultural identities.

“What am I? I don’t know.”

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