Story posted August 29, 2007
At first glance, soul food, divine judgment, James Baldwin, Laotian socialism, Dave Chappelle and Native American tribal colleges have little in common, but on July 26, 2007, 70 people — faculty, staff, administrators and community members — gathered in Cram Alumni Barn to hear about all of these topics in the culminating colloquium of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program.
Bowdoin is one of 34 recipient schools of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Mellon Mays Grant aimed at increasing diversity in the faculty ranks of colleges and universities. Each spring, the Bowdoin program, directed by Associate Professor of English Elizabeth Muther, selects a new cohort of five students who demonstrate promise and commitment to pursuing PhDs in historically underrepresented fields in the humanities and social sciences.
Through the application process, students propose a summer research project in their field of study, which they pursue with guidance from faculty mentors and a well-structured program of intensive research, writing and oral communications workshops. This summer, the seemingly disparate research topics represent an unusually cohesive group of fellows who labored long days and nights in the Russwurm African-American Center library to arrive prepared to give their talks and take questions from the audience.
"I'm only taking questions from non-PhDs," joked Jessica Walker '09, after her presentation on the symbolism of soul food. In her examination of Vertamae Grosvenor's 1970 autobiographical cookbook Vibration Cooking or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, Walker focused on collard greens, a "token soul food dish," and the ways in which they can construct black female identity. "As an anthropology major, I am really interested in this idea of food being symbolic," she says. "Anthropologists have envisioned food as an embodiment of power relationships in most cultures." Working with Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Krista Van Vleet, Walker pursued her interests in the context of the African American community, finding that through cooking, "there is this shared understanding of greens' power to represent and authenticate Blackness."
Walker passed the microphone to Lynzie McGregor '09, a philosophy major, who took the audience through a philosophical answer to her burning question: "How does divine punishment and divine judgment tie into the notion of a completely good and loving Christian God?" McGregor evolved this question after taking her mentor Professor Scott Sehon's course The Philosophy of Religion.
Combining her interests in religion and ethics, McGregor considered God's actions in the tenth plague (the killing of Egyptian firstborns) of the book of Exodus through the lens of human war ethics. "This allows me to deal directly with the contradiction between God's actions and the notion of a good God," says McGregor. "This contradiction defies human ethics, and consequently, many Christians abandon human moral reasoning when choosing to believe that God is omnibenevolent, or completely good." Poised at the podium, McGregor took an array of questions on her controversial topic, answering each in a methodic, scholarly fashion, arousing the audience's awe. "I was so nervous," she exclaimed afterwards. "But it was fun!"
From the divine to the mundane, the fellows displayed their hard work with grace, even as the heat made them sweat in the limelight. An audience member offered up an extra napkin when Tony Perry '09 wiped his brow through his explanation of critics' misinterpretations of James Baldwin's later works. "Many critics were quite dismissive of Baldwin in response to the anger and frustration that characterized his work after the mid-sixties," Perry said. "I would argue that these critics dismissed Baldwin because of his attacks on white liberals and his seemingly apparent support of the black power movement."
Working with Elizabeth Muther and Writer-in-Residence Anthony Walton, Perry focused on a particular passage in Baldwin's No Name in the Street (1972), which seemed to be indicative of an extremist militant stance. Explaining the passage in the context of the book and the historical period, Perry showed that Baldwin expressed militant views not because they were his own, but because he sought to explain black militancy to an uncomprehending wider public. Through studying No Name, Perry concluded that after the '60s, "Baldwin wrote with an honesty and insight very much like what appeared in his earlier more celebrated work. If people who have problems with Baldwin's later work made the effort to understand both what he's saying and why he's saying it, they would see that he was a credible and important writer before and after his turn in perspective."
Another fellow whose work reinterpreted a presiding historical argument was Christine Kue '09. Working with Associate Professor of Government and Asian Studies Henry Laurence, Kue examined the history of socialism in Laos, which many suggest ended with the 1991 constitution. Kue found that although the constitution "does not even mention socialism, a peculiar fact for a socialist party," the Lao People's Revolutionary Party is still a socialist party. Dealing with underdevelopment, Laos has had to adapt its forms of socialism to create a viable economy — much in the way China created "socialism with Chinese characteristics," as Kue points out.
But Laotian socialism, Kue explained, is quintessentially Laotian because of the "pervasive role Buddhism plays in Lao society." Departing from Marxist state atheism, Laotian socialists have tolerated religion, even embracing the role of Buddhism in creating national cohesion. Thus, says Kue, socialism in Laos did not end in 1991. "It seems that using Laotian characteristics — that is, the pervasive role of Buddhism to teach people Marxist-Leninist ideology — and by developing Laos, the Party is merely going through a transitional period," Kue says. "In essence, like China, this is socialism with Laotian characteristics."
It all depends on how you interpret the facts, you might say. This mantra is true also of Diego Millan's work on the subversive African American comic Dave Chappelle. After deferring his on-campus research summer last year to take a travel fellowship for intensive language study in Japan, Millan '08 examined the controversy surrounding Chappelle's decision to walk away from a $50 million contract with Comedy Central — a decision that prompted accusations of insanity and drug abuse. Departing from seemingly simple questions like, "Why do we laugh?" and "What is funny?", Millan worked with Assistant Professor of English Mark Foster to evolve "my own theory of comedy to apply to Chappelle and understand why he left Chappelle's Show.
Millan found that once comics hit the mainstream, they are subject to mass commodification. For subversive comics, this can mean that their message is severely undermined. "Rather than become another pawn, Chappelle decides to walk away," Milan told the audience. Although he concluded that for the time being, subversive comedy cannot survive in the mainstream, Millan ended on a positive note. "Perhaps someday comedians like Dave Chappelle will reach broader audiences ready to hear what they have to say and realize, although they may be the butt of the joke, in laughing with the comedian at what's wrong with the world, the audience can begin to topple the pervasive power dynamics in our culture," Millan says.
Taking us back to another culture, Alivia Moore '09 said, "I am a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, a native tribe here in Maine. My entire life prior to college was spent on the reservation. In my community, and other native communities across the state of Maine, we are struggling to get our youth to continue on to schools of higher education. Some tribes have established tribal colleges as a way to combat such problems."
Working with Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Leslie Shaw, Moore studied the ways in which tribal colleges strengthen the communities they serve through culturally relevant curriculum, culturally appropriate methods of learning and traditionally valued sources of knowledge. Moore's interest in looking at how tribal colleges succeed in reviving the traditional cultures of Native peoples stems from her participation in the effort to establish a tribal college in Maine.
"The four tribes of Maine are working toward developing our own tribal college, which has already been designated the Wabanaki Tribal Community College," says Moore. "Though our initiative is several years and many grants away from reality, our leaders are determined to provide the best opportunities that they can for our future generations." This summer has laid the foundation for Moore to go out into the field next summer and visit some of the tribal colleges she studied, taking the effort even farther.
"This is what Mellon is about," director Elizabeth Muther remarked after the presentations. "These students have gained so much from their work."
The adrenaline rush still going after the colloquium, the fellows gathered with their mentors, family members and friends. The nervous air became an excited buzz. "I'm going to miss you guys," Millan told the other fellows. After six weeks of workshops, lunches with faculty members and long hours in the library, the fellows are going home for some time off before classes resume. They will return to campus to continue building on their projects through their classes and Mellon-sponsored events designed to keep them thinking about graduate school and academic life beyond Bowdoin.