Humanities – On Wisconsin For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Thu, 20 Sep 2018 14:07:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A Civil Rights Pioneer Wed, 21 Feb 2018 16:54:02 +0000 "Justice for All" book cover

The influence of Lloyd Barbee LLB’56, a civil rights leader and lawyer in the 1960s and ’70s, lives on through Justice for All: Selected Writings of Lloyd A. Barbee, which was edited by Barbee’s daughter and civil rights lawyer Daphne Barbee-Wooten ’75. The book includes a foreword by Wisconsin congresswoman Gwen Moore of Milwaukee, who describes Barbee’s lasting impact on the state and the nation.

Barbee, who died in 2002, frequently signed his correspondence with “Justice for All,” a principle he carried out day to day. An attorney who is most remembered for the case that desegregated Milwaukee Public Schools in the 1970s, he defended prisoners, protestors, the poor, and Wisconsin college students who were expelled after pushing the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh to offer black-history courses.

Daphne Barbee-Wooten holding up black and white photo of Lloyd Barbee.

Daphne Barbee-Wooten Kathy Borkowski

Barbee was the only African American in the Wisconsin legislature from 1965 to 1977, and he advocated for fair housing, criminal-justice reform, equal employment opportunities, women’s rights, gay rights, and equal access to quality education.

The selected writings detail Barbee’s experiences during the civil rights movement and the challenges he faced while legislating. In the book’s introduction, Barbee-Wooten says that growing up as his child was like “riding a wave of history.” She writes, “By introducing and compiling this book, I am proudly fulfilling his goal and dream to share his thoughts and philosophy with all.”

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Ladee Hubbard Wed, 21 Feb 2018 16:53:42 +0000 Portrait of Ladee Hubbard standing against vine-covered wall

Paula Burch-Celentano

At home in New Orleans, Ladee Hubbard MFA’14 was booked. She had a full-time job as an adjunct lecturer in Africana Studies at Tulane University, a growing family, and a super-powerful calling: to write a novel. Sight unseen, Hubbard moved to Wisconsin with her three children — the youngest then just four months old — for UW–Madison’s creative writing program, where the award-winning author transformed one of her short stories into her debut novel, The Talented Ribkins. Inspired in part by a 1903 essay by W.E.B. DuBois, “The Talented Tenth,” Hubbard’s book tells the story of an African American family with a catalog of superpowers (think fire-breathing, super strength, telekinesis) and a generations-long fight for social justice.

Tell us about the moment [last fall] when you were a guest on Late Night with Seth Meyers, and the crowd applauded your mention of W.E.B. DuBois, the sociologist who wrote “The Talented Tenth.”

A lot of times I have to explain the reference to people. I think he’s not as well-known as I feel he needs to be. I was happy that people were acknowledging his role. He’s a towering figure in American history. He was not just an African American figure, but really, he’s such an important thinker.

How did your University of Wisconsin experience influence this novel?

I knew I needed to go somewhere and focus, because I have a lot of other responsibilities here in New Orleans. I didn’t have much of [the book] written until I got there, beyond the first draft. If you really want to write a book, you’re going to have to make some changes if you want it to actually happen. I just really wanted to have a chance to immerse myself in writing.

What are you hearing from readers of The Talented Ribkins ?

It’s been really gratifying that so many people seem to connect with what I was trying to accomplish with it, because there is a lot going on in the book. It talks about the family dynamic a lot, which I think you can certainly extend to how people interact with each other when they do have a connection. We are one people, in a sense.

What do you hope readers will take away from the novel’s themes of politics, history, freedom, and movement?

I talk about self-love a lot and learning to love yourself — also, in the face of all these obstacles, the value of just trying to do the best that you can with what you’ve been given. What I personally find so heroic about [Johnny the Great, a central character in the book who has a gift for making maps of places he’s never seen] is that he keeps trying. I think that’s really important, trying to find new paths — not getting stuck on one way of seeing things, either, but not being afraid to keep trying to make things better.

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8 Late Literary Giants Fri, 03 Nov 2017 23:02:37 +0000 Faded old photograph of author

Zona Gale. UW Archives S10366

Saul Bellow x’41 Humboldt’s Gift, The Adventures of Augie March; Bellow was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature

August Derleth ’30 The Sac Prairie Saga

Zona Gale 1895, MA1899 Miss Lulu Bett, Friendship Village series of short stories

Lorraine Hansberry x’52 A Raisin in the Sun, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings 1918 The Yearling

Delmore Schwartz x’35 In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

Jean Toomer x’18 Cane, The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer

Eudora Welty ’29 The Optimist’s Daughter, which won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize; short story “Why I Live at the P.O.”

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Hail, Juvenile Logophiles Wed, 23 Aug 2017 19:28:34 +0000

“I’d enjoy the dulcifluous water and empyreal sky much more if I weren’t so concerned about my arachibutyrophobia!” is what a child might say at your next streamside picnic, courtesy of Big Words for Little Geniuses.

In this clever picture book by Susan Solie Patterson ’79, MFA’82 and James Patterson, each letter of the alphabet is represented by a sophisticated word (that even adults may not know and children will love using), its definition, and a delightful illustration — with more words at the back. As the book wisely concludes, “Every little genius has to start somewhere.” (Dulcifluous, by the way, means “flowing sweetly and gently”; empyreal means “heavenly”; and arachibutyrophobia is the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth.)

David Burnett

“The idea for this book,” explains Susan, “stems from our passion for reading and the importance of getting kids to learn (love) to read, and to learn (love) language.” Big Words fulfills a dream for Susan, who has wanted to write and art-direct a children’s book since grad school, when part of her MFA show consisted of entirely handmade books. During her subsequent career in advertising, her eventual husband hired her as an art director at J. Walter Thompson. James holds the Guinness World Record for writing the most number-one New York Times bestsellers, some of which have been made into films. He’s currently collaborating with Bill Clinton on a fiction work.

The couple passionately champions reading initiatives, teacher education, the UW’s swimmers (Susan was a two-time All-American swimmer), and the UW’s Schools of Education and Nursing.

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2016 Distinguished Alumni Awards Fri, 04 Nov 2016 18:00:22 +0000 For 80 years, the Wisconsin Alumni Association has honored exceptional alumni with Distinguished Alumni Awards. Early recipients include actor Fredric March ’20 of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fame and Helen C. White PhD’24, the beloved English professor whose name now graces College Library. More recently, alumni such as Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson LLB’42, scientist Carl Djerassi PhD’45, and fashion icon Iris Apfel ’43 have joined their ranks. We imagine they’d be as proud as we are to welcome this year’s honorees into the fold.

Learn more about the award winners. The deadline for 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award nominations is December 16.

John Daniels Jr.

John Daniels Jr. was the first African American lawyer in the United States to start as an associate in a major law firm and become chair.

John Daniels Jr. MS’72

John Daniels Jr. is chair emeritus at the national law firm Quarles & Brady. As chair, he grew the law firm significantly during the worst downturn since the Great Depression. A nationally recognized expert in real estate and business law, he has been involved in some of the nation’s most complex real estate redevelopment projects. He is the former national president of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers and has represented major corporations such as General Electric, Kraft Foods, and Xerox.

After earning his MS in education, Daniels received his JD from Harvard University. Over the years, he has been a major force for civic good in Milwaukee. He has worked as lead lawyer on many signature downtown projects. He also helped organize an annual golf tournament, the Fellowship Open, that raises money to support children in need, and he has worked with his brother, a Milwaukee clergyman, on a number of community housing and education projects.

Judith Faulkner

Judith Faulkner, who earned her MS in computer sciences, serves on the department’s board of visitors, and the company she founded, Epic Systems, has endowed three computer sciences faculty positions.

Judith Greenfield Faulkner MS’67

Judith Faulkner is the founder and CEO of Epic Systems, which she launched in 1979 in an apartment-house basement. Epic has since grown to become a leading provider of integrated health care software, with clients that include the Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Cedars-Sinai, Kaiser Permanente, CVS Health, and Walgreens. More than half of the U.S. population has medical information in an Epic system. Faulkner has kept the company privately held and has built a sustainable corporate campus in Verona, Wisconsin, with 9,900 employees.

In 2013, Forbes magazine called her the “most powerful woman in health care.” Faulkner has pledged to donate 99 percent of her assets to philanthropy. UW–Madison awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2010, and she is a member of the National Academy of Medicine’s Leadership Roundtable. She also served on the Health Information Technology Policy Committee, a federal advisory group that helps to shape IT-related health care policy, and its Privacy and Security subcommittee.

Doris Weisberg

Doris Weisberg serves on the Memorial Union Building Association and is helping to position the Wisconsin Union to use locally grown products in its food-service operations.

Doris Feldman Weisberg ’58

Doris Feldman Weisberg was part of the team that launched the Food Network, where she produced numerous shows and was the managing editor of food news. She has also produced cooking shows for Lifetime Television. Prior to that, she was on the faculty of City College of the City University of New York, where she taught for 26 years. She was director of the Speech and Hearing Center and retired in 1992 as chair of the speech department.

Weisberg earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and went on to receive her MS and PhD from Columbia University. She serves on the political science department’s board of visitors, and she is also on the board of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association and is a member of its Women’s Philanthropy Council. She and her husband have created a planned gift to establish the Doris Feldman Weisberg and Robert Weisberg Center for Progressive Political Thought. They also established the Doris and Robert Weisberg Current Issues Symposium Fund at the Memorial Union to bring relevant and timely speakers to campus.

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A Long To-Do List Fri, 04 Nov 2016 18:00:06 +0000 calc_copy-01

Illustration: Danielle Lawry; Source: UW–Madison Facilities Planning and Management

After World War II, American universities experienced a building boom to handle the flood of incoming students. At UW–Madison, more than 40 percent of campus buildings were constructed in the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s.

But volume meant speedy construction, producing structures that haven’t stood the test of time and now need attention.

That’s what William Elvey had to worry about — a lot — as UW–Madison’s associate vice chancellor for Facilities Planning and Management. He likens the university’s backlog of deferred maintenance to what happens when a snowball rolls down a hill: it gets bigger. “It keeps me awake at night,” he said before leaving the UW to work for Children’s Health System of Texas.

The UW’s current deferred maintenance costs are estimated at $1.2 billion and continue to grow. Unlike previous state budgets, the most recent budget didn’t provide $20 million a year in borrowing to cover the costs of capital projects that typically cost more than $50,000, such as replacing roofs, and less expensive maintenance work, such as roof patching.

“[The Humanities Building] is the poster child for deferred maintenance,” Elvey says. The concrete exterior of the 1960s-era building is in poor condition and has exposed rebar. Elvey says it reminds him of the Tom Hanks movie The Money Pit, about an unending home renovation project.

Over the summer, university officials elected to transfer nearly $2 million from academic and research funds to cover repairs to the exterior and roof of the Humanities Building and 23 other projects that were critical to safety, including fire escapes.

For the next two-year budget, UW System officials have requested $100 million to restore the money campuses received in the past for repair and maintenance projects.

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Nuclear conspiracy

The title of director/editor Chad Gracia ’92s debut documentary film — The Russian Woodpecker — invites so many questions, but, it turns out, it has nothing to do with birds and everything to do with Fedor Alexandrovich: an eccentric, Ukrainian artist who is investigating the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.

His conspiracy theory goes like this: Soviet officials caused the meltdown to mask a failed plot to penetrate Western communications systems (and minds?) using a massive radio transmitter — nicknamed “the Woodpecker” for the pecking sound it made. Fantastical? Perhaps. But the more Alexandrovich’s inquiries unnerve the old-guard officials, the more credible his theory seems.

The Boston-based Gracia has worked in New York theater for nearly two decades as a producer, dramaturge, and playwright, focusing on plays in verse. He was in Ukraine doing a theater project when he met Alexandrovich, whom the film portrays as both protagonist and antagonist. Gracia hopes it will enlighten audiences about Ukraine’s history and its difficulty shedding its Soviet past. And, modern-day tensions between Ukraine and Russia give it renewed relevance and resonance.


Chad Gracia

The Russian Woodpecker won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival; it’s one of Yahoo’s top forty movies of 2015; and it’s a nominee for a 2016 Film Independent Spirit Award, among other honors, nominations, and best-ofs. Gracia and Alexandrovich showed it at the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison, and it opened in theaters and as video-on-demand this fall. Indie film distributor FilmBuff has also bought the worldwide rights to it.

Gracia said in a statement, “I’m excited to share Fedor’s incredible journey with audiences around the world, who I’m sure will be as charmed by his character as they are stunned by his investigation.”


All about agriculture

Few folks are as quintessentially “Wisconsin” as celebrated rural historian Jerry Apps ’55, MS’57, PhD’67, who splits his time between Madison and his farm in Waushara County. He’s had a career as a UW-Extension agent, professor (now emeritus) of UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural & Life Sciences, and now full-time writer and creative-writing instructor. He’s also the subject of Wisconsin Public Television programs.

The latest in Apps’s forty-plus books — memoirs about growing up on a Wisconsin farm and fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books about many facets of the state’s history — is Wisconsin Agriculture: A History. But what about being the Dairy State? Well, Wisconsin has been a farming state from its start — and it’s one of the nation’s most diverse agricultural states as well.

Hailed as the first expansive volume on the subject in nearly a century, Apps’s book features first-person accounts from the settlement era to today and more than two hundred photos. It covers artisanal cheeses and cranberries, of course, but it also explores the state’s relationship with its terrain, weather, and natural resources to highlight Christmas trees, honey, cattle, goats, fur farming, beekeeping, maple syrup, ginseng, hemp, cherries, sugar beets, mint, sphagnum moss, flax, and hops.


Jerry Apps

Ethnic and pioneer settlement patterns also play into Wisconsin’s agricultural profile, as do changing technologies, ag research and education, government policies, and endeavors such as aquaculture and urban farming. Finally, Apps contemplates ethical growing practices, sustainability, food safety, and the potential effects of climate change.

Wisconsin Agriculture is a giant undertaking, but then, would we expect any less from Jerry Apps?

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Raney Aronson-Rath ’92 Mon, 29 Feb 2016 16:52:04 +0000 Raney Aronson

Courtesy Of Frontline

It takes real diplomacy to seek truth behind the Ebola crisis in West Africa or famine in South Sudan. Raney Aronson-Rath ’92 is up to the task.

Aronson-Rath is sifting and winnowing at the pinnacle of journalism as the second-ever executive producer of the PBS investigative series Frontline. She took the top spot in 2015 and has been recognized for driving innovation behind the series’ respected documentary journalism. A recent look at Ebola in West Africa marked the program’s inaugural report in virtual reality — a big step in Frontline’s expansion into new storytelling frontiers.

“We’re trying to tell some of our hardest stories in virtual reality,” Aronson-Rath says of the presentation style, shot and produced to provide a 360-degree, immersive experience when viewers use a special cardboard device paired with a smartphone. “Sometimes being immersed in an environment that you can never yourself go to can really help you understand the world better.”

That’s the mindset that Aronson-Rath had when leaving home in rural Vermont for UW-Madison, anticipating a career as an international diplomat. She double-majored in history and South Asian studies and learned Hindi and Urdu alongside international students.

“I wanted to be fluent in multiple languages, and travel the world, and live overseas, and have that access to the rest of the world,” she says.But she experienced a decisive career-path twist: the newsroom of the Daily Cardinal, where, as a freshman city-desk reporter, her editor often pushed her to “go make it better.” The Cardinal was just the start of what would be Aronson-Rath’s many collaborations with fellow Wisconsin journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winners Lowell Bergman ’66, Walt Bogdanich ’75, and her then-editor, the late Anthony Shadid ’90.

“I think a lot of us who grew up at the Cardinal then went into serious journalism because we saw the potential as young people,” recalls Aronson-Rath, who went from a postgraduation reporting gig in Taiwan to roles at ABC News, the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, and, in 2007, to Frontline as a senior producer.

Today she is headquartered at WGBH-TV in Boston, where she lives with her husband, NPR correspondent Arun Rath, and their two young children. Aronson-Rath says anyone who wants to understand the world better should be watching Frontline.

“We essentially tell you in a deeper way what’s happening, and we make sense of it for you,” she says. “Or, we tell you it makes absolutely no sense, and this is why.”

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Chasing Abloh Mon, 09 Nov 2015 17:27:07 +0000 ensembles

Photos courtesy of Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh shows his Wisconsin colors at the Coach show during New York Fashion Week this past September. He’s wearing The Red Shirt ™, Limited Edition by Virgil Abloh, a special T-shirt he created to help raise money for UW scholarships (Getty Images, Brad Barket). The models at right are wearing clothes from his Off-White Spring/Summer 2014 and 2015 collections.

Some months ago — never mind how long, exactly — having little to no expectations, and nothing in particular to lose, I thought to do a story on Virgil Abloh.

Haven’t heard of Abloh? You will. Since graduating from UW-Madison in 2003, he has thrown caution and his engineering degree to the wind to build an empire of music, fashion, and celebrity connections.

The music world knows him as DJ Flat White, famous for playing the hottest London dance clubs. Recently, he and French DJ Guillaume Berg formed a group under the Bromance record label called Paris, IL — which, if you haven’t heard, had an A-list crowd surfer during its set at the Coachella music festival. It was rapper and cultural icon Kanye West, who also showed up during Abloh’s set at the Bromance after-party. For more than a decade, Abloh has served as Kanye’s creative director, a role that he described to New York Magazine as “basically just [helping] him see his vision through.”

But more than his music career, and perhaps even more than working as Kanye’s “all-purpose cultural guru,” as the New York Times called him, Abloh is known for his clothing line, Off-White.

“OFF-WHITE c/o VIRGIL ABLOH is a fashion label,” reads the brand’s website, “rooted in current culture at a taste-level particular to now.”

The now is achieved by a “real-world, feet-on-the-ground type of design approach,” Abloh told GQ. It’s an approach that has earned him the honor of being the only American finalist for the prestigious Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) Prize. This past May, Abloh flew to Paris to present his collection, along with seven other designers.

So Abloh is a busy man. Trying to find a sliver of time in his star-crossed schedule seemed nothing short of impossible until, finally, a breakthrough. Following a flurry of last-minute emails and several international text messages, Off-White’s PR manager said Abloh could spare an hour to meet with me in person. Less than twenty-four hours later, I jumped in my car to make the 250-mile round-trip to Chicago.

My 2005 Pontiac Vibe clunks down North Green Street, which is lined with gastropubs and artisanal pizzerias. To my left is an alleyway lit with hanging Edison bulbs — the entrance to a restaurant specializing in smoked meats. To my right, slightly hidden by a line of discarded Lincoln MKTs awaiting their valets, is our meeting spot: Soho House.

The interior of Soho House, Chicago’s newest members-only hotel/spa/club “for creative souls,” looks like somebody raided a log cabin and your grandmother’s house to furnish an old factory. And yet, it’s easily the chicest place I’ve ever been. I perch on the edge of a pheasant-patterned beige-and-blue couch and place my recorder on the gold rim of a glass table — moving in slow motion. The slightest dent could cost me the value of my aforementioned clunker.

Abloh texts me: he’s running behind schedule. That’s understandable, as the clock is ticking down on his LVMH presentation. He’ll let me know when he’s twenty minutes away.

I review my notes. Abloh is from Chicago’s Lincoln Park, two neighborhoods north of the Fulton Market District and Soho House. But it’s in this area that he’ll launch his latest venture: a restaurant, co-owned with several of his buddies. Perhaps he’s following in the footsteps of New York City restaurateur Gabe Stulman ’03. The two were roommates for five years while at UW-Madison and were known for hosting sophisticated dinner parties rather than throwing pre-game keggers.

As I read, a well-dressed young man places an Afternoon Tea menu on the table in front of me. He asks if I’d like to order a drink. “No, thank you,” I respond. “I’m waiting for someone.”

Forty minutes later, he comes back. He compliments my necklace, stalling. “Sorry, I’m still waiting,” I explain. “Really, he should be here any second.”

Through several rounds of awkward encounters, the waiter and I proceed from small talk to microscopic. He stops checking on me. I peruse the Afternoon Tea placard, glancing up each time a Porsche or Lincoln passes the floor-to-ceiling window. A tall blonde woman wordlessly swaps out the Afternoon Tea menu for the evening’s Small Plates offerings. I debate ordering the mini truffle grilled cheese for ten dollars, but decide against it. It would be rude to be eating when Abloh arrives.

One hundred and fifty minutes later, I get a call. Too many things have come up, and Abloh won’t be able to make it. We agree to speak over the phone on Thursday — he’ll be en route to Manhattan in the morning but will give me a call in the afternoon. I shell out half a day’s paycheck in the parking ramp and head for home.

Thursday passes into Friday. At 11:30 a.m., Off-White’s manager says Abloh could call me at 12:30, for one hour only. The LVMH awards are less than a week away, and Abloh is the type of man you drop everything for. So I sit in an empty conference room, glancing at my phone, waiting for Abloh. At 12:50, the phone rings. Amid a symphony of Manhattan traffic, Abloh’s tenor cuts through the phone.

He is a fan of long pauses and big words. He expounds on simple questions by instead answering others that you had never planned to ask — not unlike Kanye, his mentor. Perhaps it’s a trait that’s rubbed off in the thirteen years the two have spent working together. They were first introduced after Abloh received his master’s in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology, which he completed immediately following his undergraduate education.

At the UW, Abloh studied civil engineering at the advice of his father. Though he was “sort of irreverent” toward the major, he doesn’t regret it. “Everything I did, in some way, made this result happen,” Abloh explains. In studying engineering, he learned how to multitask and problem-solve — the basis of his career. “I have a philosophy on problem-solving, I guess,” he says.

A pause. I ask what that philosophy is.

“There’s … remnants of juxtaposition,” Abloh posits. He expatiates on the idea that functionality and modern humor are part of his approach to design, and that each solution should serve a purpose. “Sort of vague answers,” he concludes, “but that’s, like, a vague question.”

But then Abloh is vague, particularly when it comes to discussing his upcoming LVMH presentation. “It’s a little bit theoretical,” he begins. Fashion critics have characterized Off-White as a high-minded streetwear line, but for Abloh, the term streetwear has yet to be formally defined. This lack of definition is what his award presentation aims to rectify. “My attempt is to add layers of sophistication to it and bolster up the reason why it’s important for now,” he says. (The LVMH Prize was ultimately awarded to Marques’Almeida, a British label.)

Focused on the now, he is reluctant to chart a plan for his future. “I’ll just hopefully have a long career doing what excites me,” he says. And as Abloh’s empire continues to grow — from music to fashion to restaurants — I’m guessing he will.

When he finds the time.

Chelsea Schlecht ’13 is a writer for On Wisconsin and is working on her vague questions.

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When Black History Is Your Own Wed, 27 May 2015 09:00:32 +0000 Fannie DavisLike an offshore breeze, Thulani Davis unsettles the air. Conversations with the assistant professor of Afro-American studies swirl through three centuries of black American history, including the lives of Davis’s own ancestors.

Davis, a soft-spoken native of coastal Virginia who joined the UW faculty in 2014, admits that teaching about the legacies of slavery can be painful. “My aunt was one of those picketers they sicced dogs on,” she says. This visceral connection to the past informs her life and work — and brings the Reconstruction era of American history alive for her students. Davis landed here last fall after an illustrious, forty-year career as a writer, playwright, librettist, poet, and screenwriter. Her latest act: helping convince President Obama to create a national monument to slavery in 2011.

We caught up with Davis over a cup of tea and a conversation that lasted two hours — like any true Southerner, she loves to talk.

After working for The Village Voice, penning plays, poems, and a novel (titled 1959), and even winning a Grammy for writing the liner notes for Aretha Franklin’s The Atlantic Recordings, how do you like teaching at UW–Madison?

I find it fun. It’s not my first teaching job — I taught writing at Barnard College for seven years, and at a few other places as well. But it is my first time teaching about Reconstruction, which was my dissertation topic at New York University. Students don’t know much about that period, I’m discovering. They don’t really learn about it in high school.

How do you draw students in?

I take them through an interesting exercise. I ask them to imagine they are enslaved on a plantation one day, then freed the next. What do free people need? They all seem clear that they’d need education, rights — all the things black people were denied. But I make them get very literal. Anyone who is displaced needs water. Needs food. Needs shelter. Then they need a safe place to meet, for support but also to plan and organize themselves to move forward.

These are things I know, because my great-grandfather was faced with this situation. What is your great-grandfather’s story?

In 1862, my great-grandfather, William Roscoe Davis, piled his family in a farm wagon and sneaked through the countryside of Tidewater Virginia to Fort Monroe, which had just fallen to the Union army. He had gotten word that post commander Major General Benjamin Butler was declaring all slaves in the vicinity “contraband of war.” For my great-grandfather, who was fifty years old and a slave all his life, that was the first step to freedom. And he and his family eventually became some of the founders of the African-American community in Hampton, Virginia, where I grew up.

The amazing thing that I found out much later was that Fort Monroe was both the beginning and the end of slavery in America. The first twenty documented Africans, brought from Angola to Jamestown in 1619, were actually first traded to Virginians at Fort Monroe. So here my great-grandfather was — along with ten thousand other slaves — freeing himself by coming to the exact same place, two hundred years later. Did that family story spark your interest in studying this historical period?

You know, I didn’t think anything of that story when I was young — lots of people in my town had a similar story. Most people had a grandfather who was a child of the local planter — it was boringly common. And older people did not necessarily want to talk about slavery very much. But the real legacy was community. We lived in a community that really knew how to organize to make change and get things done. In my research, I show the ways that was sustained through the decades.

Your novel, 1959, portrays that very close-knit community you grew up in, as it faced down Jim Crow laws. Why was, and is, community so important?

Pretty much all [that] black people felt they had, when they came out of the Civil War, was each other. They didn’t have houses, they didn’t have schools. The Freedman’s Bureau was forming, but it had setbacks and some serious problems. Black people formed these “benevolent societies” to help one another. But white Southerners were very worried about black people having meetings.

I teach about the Ku Klux Klan terrorism in the 1870s, when the Klan burned organizers’ homes. There was a massacre in Georgia when black people tried to hold a meeting in the town square — forty-nine people were wounded, and nine died. The question I ask my students is, “Would you risk your life for a meeting?” And they get that instantly. Hopefully no one will ask them to take a chance like that. Is it hard to teach about this painful time?

Some days it is. Not every day. You know, Southerners have such a sense of humor. My aunt, who is now ninety-four, celebrated the end of segregation by going to a hairdresser — for white people!

So how does your previous life as a public intellectual inform your new life as a UW-Madison professor?

What black culture — growing up in it, writing about it — taught me was never to assume that we live in a completely open, transparent world. My schoolteachers taught me how to read the newspaper with skepticism. We were told to imagine what is missing, what is not reported. I’m amazed sometimes at the questions people do not ask. Journalism was a great business to be in. I miss it to this day. I want my students to be skeptical. I want them to look for connections.

In 2011, you had a hand in something quite … monumental. What happened?

I spoke at a celebration commemorating Hampton’s four-hundredth anniversary, and the Contraband Society asked me to join forces with them to convince President Obama to designate Fort Monroe a national monument. I wrote a letter describing my great-grandfather’s journey, and I gathered lots of signatures from well-known people. And in 2011, President Obama declared [it] the first national monument to slavery. To the extent that my letter helped President Obama make up his mind, I think it was a good illustration of the power of storytelling.

Mary Ellen Gabriel is a senior university relations specialist with the College of Letters & Science. Talking with professors such as Thulani Davis is the best part of her job.

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