Thinking About the Pittsburgh Mass Shooting: Elana Newman

Our updates from the Humanities Research Seminar continue this week with a post from Elana Newman. Elana is McFarlin Professor of Psychology in Henry Kendall College of Arts & Sciences at The University of Tulsa. Her major area of work focuses upon assessing, understanding, and treating maladaptive responses to traumatic life events. She has authored numerous articles based on her trauma research and is a co-editor of the book Trauma therapy in context: The science and craft of evidence-based practice. With respect to memory, she is interested in how individual and collective memories are represented in news.


Thinking about the Pittsburgh Mass Shooting: By Elana Newman

When I sat down on to write my blog, the terrible shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue had just occurred.  That morning, a man shot eleven people in a synagogue, and injured six others, including four first responders. In response, two colleagues and I immediately created a tip sheet on how to talk to children about hate, violence and anti-Semitism.  It was published later that week in Forward and adapted for use by the National Child Traumatic Stress NetworkInstead of writing about about PTSD and memory as I planned, I found myself instead wanting to know the victims, the survivors, and the community.  I was consistently checking my online newsfeed.  Here, I think aloud about what my behavior says about collective memory. 

Eleven people slaughtered this morning at a synagogue. Eleven deaths of people I do not know but imagine.  So far I know it is Saturday morning service, which usually means only the most dedicated regular congregants attended.  If it was on the earlier side, it means the leaders were there.  A baby naming was scheduled, so imagine lots of families milling about as well: joyful families, friends, and congregants rejoicing to celebrate the newest birth.  Happiness and faith curtailed.  Eleven dead.

Eleven dead for practicing their faith. For no reason.  Why target a house of worship?  Schools, houses of worship and hospitals are off limits for wars. The rules of normal warfare make them sacrosanct, but not anymore. These chilling and shocking acts are becoming all too familiar: the Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ of Tennessee, the Al-Fuquan Jame Masjid Mosque in New York and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and Billage Shalom, Kansas to name a few.  We have seen this in schools – too many school shootings to name.  We have seen this in the streets too. Too many meaningless deaths to name again. Now, another eleven dead.

Eleven deaths and lives that I fiercely want to honor, but how can I honor people that I do not know.  Why am I searching for honor in the dishonorable act of meaningless murder?   It makes no sense to me, my search to know these eleven people.  I know that I simply cannot write academically about memory today. Instead, I want to understand my fierce need to preserve the memory of these people I do not know.  Yet how can I preserve a memory that is not my own?  A memory I do not have?  I have no memory of them – no information to process, encode, store, or retrieve.  Yet I seek such information to become a memory. This makes no sense.

Last week  in the Oklahoma Center for Humanities seminar, I asked each of my colleagues to define memory.  We come from a variety of disciplines, professions, and backgrounds.  Nearly all of us defined memory as an individual phenomenon from lived experience – something we experienced.  Although memory was defined individually, when asked  what types of memory each person was most interested in,  most individuals clearly focused on collective memory.  However, none of us could specify how individual memory became part of collective memory.  We realized a lack of connection of how private accounts become public accounts  existed in our own theorizing and readings thus far.

Today as I experience the desire to learn about people I do not know nor will I ever have the opportunity to know, the connection between personal and collective becomes very clear.  In order to make sense of  mass violence,  I need to access publically available information,to create memories from knowledge about events outside my direct experience. In this case, I seek out information curated  and collected by journalists on the scence.  Hence journalists typically serve as the mediator to  my viacarious  memory.  I seek out journalists’ Twitter feeds when news is unfolding and then I seek news on the event and its impact.  I look to obituaries to help me understand those who die during the event or the aftermath. I study trauma and disaster mental health, so there are times when my collective memory comes from interacting with direct witnesses, family members of those injured or killed, emergency responders, and others at the scene.  Most often, however, journalists are the cultural mediators who help me turn vicarious experiences of violence into  memory.

My friend Bruce Shapiro, an investigative reporter, always talks about journalism as the circulatory system of democracy.  In times of tragedy, news circulates knowledge and memories about collective violence and particular deaths.  Once I have that knowledge it becomes a memory that I can manipulate and use.  For me, it typically involves the personal act of memoralization: recognizing a deceased individual in their totality, their humanity – their goodness and weaknesses – as a memory to be preserved.  That is a personal moral act, I suppose, of accepting that a person can live on with the memory of those living. Then I move on to interpreting the event, its meaning and implications for myself and my communities.  Typically in my work this means understanding, preparing for the aftermath, and hoping to prevent other such events.

Although it does not always occur, my memory may become more collective as I share it with others or look for cultural interpretations.  Typically, after I learn about the survivors and the event itself, I turn to social media, friends, and rituals. In this case, I attended a memorial service for victims of the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue held at B’nai Emnuah Congregation, led by multiple faith leaders.  At least 1,500 people were there—seats and benches from all corners of the building were brought in and it was standing room only. I heard clergy discuss the events generally and specifically.  For example, Reverend Alexis Carter of Metropolitan Baptist Church spoke about the frequency of which we have to mourn acts of violence and that while we cannot stop evil, we can “interrupt it ” by confronting bigotry. Rev. Carter stated that the Jewish community and the African American community have a lot of wisdom and experience to share about how to “sing in the darkness.”

Reverend Marlin Lavanhar of All Soul’s Unitarian Church suggested that trauma and wounds of the soul can only heal in community. I watched a photographer take pictures of hands held together and will remember those images – clasped hands of all different faiths, sizes, and colors. The Mayor of Tulsa thanked the city’s Jewish community for its role as a peacemaker and an advocate for the disenfranchised in our city. Eleven candles were lit as we heard of the dead.  Then, the  the Mourners Kaddish was chanted and the Shofar sounded.  Together, the Tulsa community made sense of the Pittsburgh attack and its national and local implications and became part of a collective memory of traumatic loss. The community allows us to create collective memories.

Thus as I reflect on my process of grappling with creating memories after the Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, I realize that for  me, in times of mass tragedy, journalism and community are the transformative agents that turn information first into a personal memory and then a collective one.  Together, these essential elements help me personally create memories and meaning in times of mass violence.



Past Resistance: Mark de Silva

Our updates from the Humanities Research Seminar continue, this week with a post from Mark de Silva. Mark is the author of the novel Square Wave (Two Dollar Radio, 2016). He holds degrees in philosophy from Brown (AB) and Cambridge (PhD). After six years on the editorial staff of the New York Times, first with its opinion pages and then with its Sunday magazine, he is now a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine and an editor at large for The ScofieldFor 2018, he is a Tulsa Artist Fellow and a lecturer in the philosophy department at Oklahoma State University.


Past Resistance

By Mark de Silva

Here are a few platitudes about memory. It’s subjective. It’s plastic. It’s often self-servingly selective, when it’s not simply fiction. Naturally, memoir, by which I mean that recounting of a human life in which protagonist and author are one, can’t help but inherit these liabilities. They once would have counted as such, anyway. In many quarters—in humanities departments, for some time now, and more recently and troublingly, in American politics and popular culture—acknowledging the frailty of memory and narrative history, whether personal or collective, seems to have brought with it a kind of relief from the age-old demands for objectivity (or even intersubjectivity). In many spheres of life, and especially online, we are now asked to admit to the looseness of memory’s grip, and the tallness of every tale. It’s what authenticity and honesty require, we are told: a frank reckoning with human finitude. But the news isn’t all bad (or is it?). For we are also invited to celebrate a newfound power over our pasts, and our presents too, through a curious form of autonomy that would have come as a surprise to a philosopher like Immanuel Kant: freedom from the tyranny of fact. Subjectivity, partiality, the fragment and the shard have all become refuges from the fraught, anxiety-making project of assembling wholes.

As a novelist, I have watched closely and with some dismay as this phenomenon has manifested in literary circles. Lately, mainstream critics and readers appear besotted by a shrunken, self-pitying strain of autobiographical fiction, one you could call with some fairness Facebook fiction, to distinguish it from the far thornier versions of the past, like Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire Of London, the first book in a notoriously vexing six-volume cycle of memoirs. Novels by Geoff Dyer, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose own memoir cycle, My Struggle, might be usefully compared to Roubaud’s, if only to measure the diminution in ambition, seem premised on the notion that if it is our fate to embroider and even fabricate our pasts, insulating our preferred identities from the sharp edges of actuality, we ought to openly acknowledge our fraudulence and fantasize with purpose, even panache. (The current White House has taken note.)

For my part, I’ve never found this particular conscription of the imagination, whether in literature, electoral politics, or daily life, especially appealing. Some liberties aren’t worth taking. Reading these authors, one feels that if they had more conviction, they would exercise their imaginations properly in the invention of characters, plots, and settings, without simply lifting them from their own lives; or else they would get down to the painstaking work of research and corroboration that’s involved in any plausible (authentic, if you like) history, including autobiography. Instead, they’ve settled on a middling path, both creatively (why struggle to invent from whole cloth, when you can just use your life, your memories to fill in your novel?) and intellectually (why sift and weigh the facts when you can just make up what suits the tale you you’d like to tell, the person you’d like to be, whenever reality doesn’t oblige?).

This fall, I’ve been examining problems for the autobiographical self in our research seminar here at the University of Tulsa. I’ve also been teaching a course in the philosophy of art at Oklahoma State University. The combination has been revelatory. My aesthetics course has me thinking that the deepest difficulty attending the autobiographical self is one that afflicts art too: sentimentality. Nostalgia, its most obvious form, is hardly the end of it. For the tint of the glasses needn’t be rose. The red of self-lacerating shame, say, or of righteous indignation, will do just as well. As will the gray of ironic ennui.

Do just as well for what, though? Evasion—frequently of the self- variety. This, I think, is what binds the various forms of sentimentality together: the desire to feel a certain way about oneself or the world perverts the desire to know. Fantasy comes first. Yes, memory is malleable and subject to all sorts of failings, no one can seriously deny this, and no one should want to. But why treat these banal faults as insuperable, a limiting horizon of our humanness? When it comes to memory and personal testimony, we nearly always have some form of corroborating evidence to aid us—written records, videotape, artifacts of various sorts, and of course other people’s memories—which we can check our memories against, if we genuinely interested in the truth.

Now, the significance of events may be impossible to settle definitively, no matter how much checking and rechecking we do. But this fault cannot be accounted a failure of memory or narrative; it’s simply a consequence of events almost always being able to bear multiple interpretations. That lends no credence to the more extreme claims we now hear, for instance, that all narrative or memoir is really fiction. This claim is of just the same order as that all news is really fake, even if the people making these two assertions tend to belong to different political parties.

So here’s my provisional conclusion: rather than any intrinsic limitation on the faculty of memory or the practice of storytelling, it is sentimentality—ginned-up outrage at political goings-on that barely touch our lives, say, or tender melancholia about what America used to be like—that stands in the way good autobiography, good politics, and good fiction. That sounds like something we can work on, though, if not exactly master. Nothing like fate.

Making Memoirs with Anna Badkhen


We are delighted to welcome author and Tulsa Artist Fellow Anna Badkhen to the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities tomorrow as part of our exploration of memory. This talented memoirist will read from her own work and then welcome readings from some of the students who have just completed her creative writing course. Please join us on Tuesday evening at 7:00 p.m. in Tyrrell Hall for this free event.

We recently chatted with Anna and her students Rae, Ethan, and Emily about their experiences with memoir writing–and what surprised them most this semester.

Anna Badkhen

I consider storytelling a kind of a curatorship, an invitation to encourage compassion and to challenge the dominant, reductive narrative of the world. For more than twenty years I have been documenting the human condition in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America, using high art to expose the world’s iniquities.

As an immigrant writer whose work focuses on human rights and social justice I look forward to the opportunity to encourage and cultivate a new generation of storytellers whose voices are necessary to keep our world accountable.

Teaching, to me, is another aspect of my work of inquiry into what matters most in human life. I see teaching as a way to more fully extend ethical concern and moral witness, another part of my being a human in the world who strives to help cultivate empathy and keep from cynicism and despair.

Memoir is experiential nonfiction: a storytelling tool that combines the empirical and the remembered with the researched to create, hopefully, a narrative that addresses injustice and offers another way of looking at the world. Not to be confused with autobiography (as my colleague Beth Kephart suggests, leave autobiography to the celebrities–or simply leave it, period), memoir requires rigorous research and a level of introspection and honesty. Though I suspect that if I taught any other creative nonfiction class, or poetry class, I would demand of my students the same: to write with dedication, to use language with precision and love sentences, to cultivate curiosity and to strive to use high art to expose the world’s iniquities. For a semester I tried to teach my class to pay attention, challenge preconceptions, and to intend compassion. To see them get it, to see them break out of their comfort zones and broaden their ethical and literary inquiries into how the world works and doesn’t–that has been, to me, the most rewarding aspect of the class.

Rae Riggs

What was the most surprising thing you learned about writing memoirs this semester?

I was most surprised about how much research goes into writing a memoir, it wasn’t simply the recollection of thoughts that made our stories “real”, it was the supporting evidence that justified why we were writing and demanding the reader’s attention. I was also surprised by how much can be said in so few words. This class never had a minimum word count. It was actually preferred that we stay under a certain word limit, unlike most classes where a writer is filling with “fluff,” we were encouraged to cut to the most basic, additive language, making our pieces much clearer and more concise.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself through this experience?

I was reluctant to admit how much my final project still effected my everyday life. I’ve rewritten it many times while still only scratching the surface. Every time I read that piece, I find ways to connect that trauma to disruptive behaviors that are still present. That surprised me. I thought I overcame so much, but I am still growing. Through writing this memoir, I may finally start to heal.

Ethan Veenker

What was the most surprising thing you learned about writing memoirs this semester?

One week after reading one of my pieces to the class I got nervous, as I always do in workshop scenarios. Before anyone could say anything I said, “So, I know this isn’t really memoir,” but Anna cut me off, asking, “Why not?” I responded that because the piece I had just read dealt mostly with another person, and hardly at all with myself, that I didn’t consider it memoir. If I could paraphrase what she said in response, it was something like, “No, this is fine. If you’d written about yourself that would have been autobiography. This is memoir. They are different things.”

It’s a small thing, but that interaction opened a larger understanding into memoir for me, both as something to read and something to write. It’s an incredibly versatile genre, and there’s a misunderstanding out there from people who don’t read it. Memoir doesn’t have to just be writing about oneself; it can be writing about anything, situated in a personal or cultural way.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself through this experience?

The essay has always interested me as an art form, but I have always been intimidated in writing it, as I’ve felt my life simply lacks “interesting content.” While memoir doesn’t necessarily have to be about myself, I’ve learned in crafting the pieces for this semester that, should I choose to write about myself, I can do it, and I can create a compelling essay. Writing about one’s life isn’t writing about what happened, but looking at it through a different lens, and analyzing and commenting on what did or didn’t happen, and that definition isn’t exhaustive. No one is incapable of having an examined life.

Emily Every

What was the most surprising thing you learned about writing memoirs this semester?

More than anything else, I’ve learned that truth rings throughout successful memoir. As much as it is easier to write memoir that treats complex subjects with simplicity of emotion and theme, neither the author nor their audience are satisfied with those sort of answers. If something is complex, allow yourself to speak to that complexity without feeling compelled to sterilize the subject matter.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself through this experience?

I struggle(d) with a tendency to view my own experiences as less weighty or impactful than the experiences of those around me. Spending this semester sharing my life and own point of view with my peers through memoir has, in a lot of ways, strengthened my confidence in my own voice as a writer, cliche as it may sound.

For more information about this event, please visit our Facebook event page here.

An Evening with Mackenzi Lee

This Thursday, accomplished young adult author Mackenzi Lee will be at the University of Tulsa for a reading and a conversation that is sure to engage book lovers of all ages.

Lee, a self-proclaimed “reader, writer, and perpetually-anxious badass,” will be here to discuss her exciting, boundary-breaking works of young adult fiction.

Her New York Times Bestseller The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, is regularly featured on “Epic Reads” website and Youtube channel, where she excitedly champions the best that YA has to offer, with a particular focus on LGTBQIA+ books. To watch Lee exuberantly share her infectious love of these stories is to believe in the power of YA to speak to readers’ lives in crucial and intimate ways. Some of her contributions within the last year include a two-part series of recommendations for Pride-month-reading, and a list of books to read instead of that book 17 of your relatives all sent you for Christmas.

Lee’s third novel, Bygone Badass Broads, started out as a Twitter campaign by Lee, who was frustrated by the lack of representation of women’s narratives throughout history: “It felt like if I wanted to learn about women, or about queer people, or people of color in history, I had to take an elective class that was only taught once every seven years and met in a basement room with no windows” says Lee in an interview with The Mary Sue. “Meanwhile, all the general courses I had to take as a history major were hyper-focused on men and their contributions in history.” The book is a collection of 52 different stories of women. Lee also stresses the moral complexity she wanted to highlight with her selections: “there’s a woman in the book named Ching Shih, who was a pirate lord in China” Lee explains. “In terms of sheer numbers, she’s the most successful pirate of all time. And when I put her on my list, my editor sort of balked at that. She was like, ‘Piracy’s not really a great thing. It’s not a victimless crime.’ Which is totally fair! But we talk about Blackbeard. We talk about a lot of dude pirates, and we give them that sort of swashbuckling glamour, so why can’t we also talk about lady pirates in the same way?”

Lee’s latest book deal is a project that in her words is “short irreverent historical nonfiction” much like her Bygone Badass Broads, but “this time, told by the dogs who saw it happen. THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 50 DOGS.”

Lee’s passion for diversity, inclusion, intersectionality, and reclaiming lost or marginalized narratives is a powerful and positive force for demonstrating how literature can change the world and bring us together. Don’t miss the conversation and reading at TU this Thursday!

Follow our Facebook event page here.

Follow Lee on Twitter and Instagram, and check out some video samples below!


Destiny Hrncir: On Memory and Grief

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to continue its series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2018-19 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of memory – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This post was composed by Destiny Hrncir, a Tulsa native and second year English Literature MA student at the University of Tulsa. Her undergraduate program concluded with a semester spent at the University of York in England, after which she spent six months traveling in Europe. Often welcomed into the homes of strangers, she was ever struck by the persistent power of remembered grief when listening to the stories of those she met. This experience has contributed in further directing her research towards the remembrance and documentation of grief.


On Memory and Grief:

On a chilly November evening six years ago, I drove aimlessly through the Oklahoma countryside. A dirt road, a clear starry night, a cigar purchased with a vague idea of ceremony in my pocket: with these I intended to mourn my friend who had died suddenly exactly one year before. In the weeks leading up to this strange anniversary I still didn’t know how one ought to go about commemorating such an event, if “commemorate” is even the right word for it. That I ought to do something was, however, incontestable. And so I drove, parked alongside a deserted road, and watched the cigar smoke waft towards the star-flecked sky.]

Grief is puzzling. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross has famously urged us to see it as a series of stages that we now, mistakenly, think of as a linear process. Perhaps what is most striking about Kübler-Ross’ model, though, is the determination at large to accept her “stages of grief” as a 5-point plan for how one ought to grieve. It is as if the intended structure matters only insomuch as it meets a long-existing but often unspoken demand to somehow make sense of the common experience of mourning. And yet my own autumn drive and countless other accounts of loss attest to just the opposite:  grief simply cannot be measured on a scale from “Denial” to “Acceptance.”

In exploring work on mourning I have encountered the persistent belief on the part of the bereaved that one ought to express one’s grief appropriately, whatever the standard this may be. St. Augustine, reflecting upon the death of a friend during his youth, continues to feel piercing loss even after many years: “But no, O Lord, all this is past and time has healed the wound” he declares, but then immediately entreats: “Let the ears of my heart move close to your lips, and let me listen to you, who are the Truth, so that you may tell me why tears are sweet to the sorrowful” (76). Augustine thus remembers the grief he experienced many years ago and feels ashamed of the violence of his mourning, and yet one cannot help but feel that Augustine surely grieves the loss of his friend even as he writes.

Alfred Lord Tennyson opens his own In Memoriam by asking the reader to forgive any excess of anguish expressed, hoping that God might “Forgive these wild and wandering cries, / Confusions of a wasted youth; / Forgive them where they fail in truth, / And in thy wisdom make me wise. (l. 41-44) Tennyson and Augustine both feel baffled by reason’s inability to penetrate the fundamentally irrational, emotional, and spiritual aspects of grief.

C.S. Lewis begins his own account of bereavement, A Grief Observed, in surprise at the difference between what he had previously believed of grief and his own feelings at the loss of his wife: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing” (1). Lewis had previously written stoically on The Problem of Pain, so it is fascinating to notice the ways in which his earlier beliefs and reason are subsumed under the weight of his grief. Likely this is why Lewis only published the four “MS notebooks” that comprise the chapters of A Grief Observed pseudonymously during his lifetime, agonizing within over the purpose of his writing them to begin with, and asking himself self-consciously, what his wife would “think of this terrible little notebook to which I come back and back? Are these jottings morbid? I once read the sentence ‘I lay awake all night with a toothache, thinking about toothache and about lying awake.’ That’s true to life.” (9)

In Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion highlights a common insistence upon the word “ordinary” in relating our traumatic memories: “the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy,” and particularly how those who describe the events such as those of 9/11 often begin their accounts with “It was just an ordinary beautiful September day” (4). Before a life-altering event it seems reasonable to note the commonplace—to recall the calm that prefigured the torrential storm.

It is the return to normalcy after loss, however, that chiefly concerns Vera Brittain in her memoir, Testament of Youth. The work is dedicated to the memory of several beloved young men killed during the chaos of the First World War, but in particular to her young fiancé, Roland Leighton. “Whenever I think of the weeks that followed the news of Roland’s death,” Brittain writes, “a series of pictures, disconnected but crystal clear, unroll themselves like a kaleidoscope through my mind” (239). The subsequent list is strikingly concluded by a memory in which Brittain feels her grief slip for a moment:

“It is Wednesday, and I am walking up the Brixton Road on a mild, fresh mourning of early spring. Half-consciously I am repeating a line from Rupert Brooke:

‘The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying…’

For a moment I have become conscious of the old joy in rainwashed skies and scuttling, fleecy clouds, when suddenly I remember—Roland is dead and I am not keeping faith with him; it is mean and cruel, even for a second, to feel glad to be alive.” (240-41).

Further highlighting Brittain’s desire to do justice to her state of mourning is her consistent frustration at her inability to preserve her memory of Roland. Thinking back after some twenty years, she realizes “it is years now since I have been able to recall his face, and I know that, even in dreams, I shall never hear the sound of his voice again” (187).

The workings of grief are, in many ways, fundamentally inexplicable. This does not make coming to terms with loss undesirable, but only implies that perhaps the greatest task of grief is simply to know it. In the final chapter of A Grief Observed Lewis admits his initial aim in writing was flawed: “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop.” (68-69) Grief is thus perhaps more akin to a country path than to a highway.

Two years ago I was once again overcome by the wish to kindle a flame of remembrance on a late November eve. I was studying in England at the time and had a candle close at hand, but had neglected to buy a lighter before all the nearby shops had closed for the night. I remember standing candle-in-hand and bewildered on the library veranda for some moments to consider my plight, when suddenly I noticed a man smoking a cigarette nearby. He obliged my request with a bemused smile, and as I walked back to my flat with the flame cradled carefully between my fingers I pronounced the meeting fortunate. I felt, also, a poignant mixture of persistent regret for what was lost and of quiet gratitude for what had been. Perhaps, at its heart, grief merely provides us the best avenue for recognition of this duality.



Works Cited:

Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. R.S. Pine-Coffin, trans. New York: Dorset Press, 1989.

Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “In Memoriam A.H.H.” The Literature Network, 1850. http://www.online-literature.com/tennyson/718/

Newsletter Announcement: The Human Connection



It has long been a goal of the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities to publish a regular newsletter. So we’re proud to announce the launch of our new monthly email newsletter: The Human Connection. Each issue will feature details about future events, links to our latest blog posts, and recommended readings that correspond to upcoming guests and events. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible to keep up with what’s happening at the Center–all in one place.

We will publish the newsletter once a month throughout the academic year, and we hope it will be a welcome addition to your inbox! The next issue will be out in early December. You can subscribe easily here.

Lost Restaurants of Tulsa

In the first in a series of blog posts about forgotten Oklahoma landmarks, Rhys Martin chats with us about his new book Lost Restaurants of Tulsa. Join us over the next several months as we explore demolished, forgotten, or abandoned sites around the state in anticipation of our May 2019 photography exhibit Forgotten Oklahoma.


Tell us a little bit about where the inspiration came from for Lost Restaurants of Tulsa. Why was this project important or appealing to you?

I have long been interested in various aspects of Tulsa history. After driving to Oklahoma City for the final days of the Charcoal Oven in 2016, I wanted to know more about the lost Tulsa eateries I’d heard about my whole life. It became a conduit for me to learn more about the people behind places like Bishop’s Restaurant and the Razor Clam…which is always the part I like best.

Did you learn anything surprising from your research and work on the book?

I didn’t realize how connected a lot of these places were. For example, I’d heard of Miller’s Drive-In on Admiral but I didn’t know it had previously been a Pennington’s location. The Silver Castle Lunch System diner chain, founded in Tulsa in the 1930s, was a launching pad for people like Claud Hobson and Johney Harden who both went on to start their own hamburger restaurants that are still operating today. I also learned about a few cultural touches that are lost in the digital age: did you know that kids from different high schools used to have their own honking patterns to identify themselves when cruising the Restless Ribbon of Peoria Avenue? Now you can just call or text your friends to see where they’re at.

Did you gather most of the materials and photos yourself or did you have help from the Tulsa community?

I started by researching the archives at the Central Library downtown and at the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. Using that information, I started reaching out to individuals related to the owners of restaurants like the Denver Grill and Villa Venice. In some cases, the actual owners were still around to tell me their story. As I researched, I’d also scour social media for tidbits of information I could use to help fill in a few blanks.

What is it about these old and seemingly forgotten places that you think people find interesting? What is the fascination?

Well, nostalgia is quite a draw. Every generation loves to remember the “good old days” and food is a great connector. I am constantly amazed by the details that people remember from fifty or sixty years ago – and those recollections always come with a deep smile. For people like me that didn’t get to experience these institutions first-hand, it’s a way to learn about simpler time and imagine what life was like. There’s a movement right now focused on farm-to-table operations and locally-sourced food. Back in the day, that’s all there was.

Who do you think the ideal audience is for your book?

As you might imagine, talking about this project with older folks tends to come with more engagement. People are eager to share their own stories and spend a few minutes in yesteryear. I hope the book also resonates with people interested in general Tulsa history and people that want to know a little more about the restaurants they’ve heard about growing up from their parents or grandparents.

Tell us a bit about the book itself: When will it be available for purchase? Where can people buy it from (either online or locally)?

The book comes out on December 3rd and will be available from a variety of local outlets like Magic City Books, Decopolis, Ida Red, and more. It’ll also be on Amazon and on my personal website (www.cloudlesslens.com). The latter is the only place where you’ll be able to get an autographed copy outside of an event. The official launch is at the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum on Saturday, December 8th at 2:00 PM. More events are being planned; you can stay up-to-date (and see photos that didn’t make it into the book) on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/LostTulsaRestaurants



Servile Oblivion

Our updates from the Humanities Research Seminar continue, this week with a post by Jacob Howland, McFarlin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tulsa. Jacob tackles some tough questions about the value of a liberal arts education and what role the university plays in keeping classical heritage alive.

Liberal education is the individual assimilation of cultural memory: we recover the historical and metaphysical ground of our being by studying the accumulated riches of the past. This humanly essential undertaking, which every generation must begin anew, rescues hard-won truths from oblivion and makes it possible to discern meaningful signals within the general noise of time.  But in today’s universities, liberal education—and especially its core, the humanities—has been largely eclipsed by programs of study whose ostensible social utility offers more immediate and measurable rewards.

For the past two summers, New Haven’s Elm Institute has offered a student seminar entitled “What Are The Humanities For?”  The readings, most decades old, remain fresh and surprising.  James Stockdale reveals in “The World of Epictetus” that studying the Stoics at Stanford helped him to survive seven years of captivity in Hỏa Lò, the Hanoi Hilton.  Jonathan Rose’s “The Classics in the Slums” includes testimonia from early twentieth-century English colliers and laundresses “kindled to the point of explosion” by books borrowed from the libraries of the Workers’ Educational Association.  Machiavelli sheds the day’s muddy clothes at the door of his study and is “received with affection” in “the ancient courts of ancient men.”  “Across the color line,” W. E. B. Dubois summons “Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”  Organic images abound in these essays and aphorisms.  Salvador Dalí teaches the paradox that “Everything that is not tradition is plagiarism,” because only art nourished by the “blood of reality”—by the essential accumulation of richly oxygenated life that circulates in the tradition—can be truly original.  Noting that “the primary mission of a university is the transmission of a precious heritage,” Roger Shattuck’s “Nineteen Theses on Literature” compares the inherently conservative institution of education to “our gonads … the most stable and protected element in the body.”  For all of these authors, the classics pulse with spiritual potency.

How does one enter into this vital and saving heritage—or rather, how does it enter into us?  This pressing question of cultural memory is largely ignored in the contemporary university, where servile arts have crowded out the liberal ones.  The crisis of liberal education goes back at least to the nineteenth century.  “Every living thing can become healthy, strong and fruitful only within a horizon,” Nietzsche observed in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (1874).  But far from providing a quiet enclosure in which the young can become “finished, ripe and harmonious personalities,” the modern university offers only a “noisy pseudo-education” that paralyzes rather than quickening individual development—that in fact “sees its advantage in preventing your becoming ripe, in order to rule and exploit you unripe ones.”  Modern education produces sterile and weak personalities that have forgotten how to feel and think deeply and fruitfully—a “race of eunuchs,” in Nietzsche’s memorable phrase. 

The overvaluation of the servile arts is in fact a defining feature of modernity.  George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language” (1946) that “in our age there is no such thing as keeping out of politics.”  The following year, Josef Pieper delivered two lectures, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture” and “The Philosophical Act,” in which he described “the so-called ‘political invasion’” of all spheres of human existence as a consequence of the “total claim of the world of work” in modern life.  For Pieper, the industrial model of education—the smothering of the liberal arts under the demand that teaching and learning be judged exclusively by the criterion of “social service,” or contribution to “the functional nexus of the modern body social”—is merely a special case of the totalizing impulse of the modern ideal of work, and of the radical devaluation of non-instrumental knowledge that this impulse entails.

This totalizing impulse has developed in ways Nietzsche and Pieper probably didn’t anticipate.  Universities now compete to offer curricula that are “relevant” not only to the contemporary economy, but to any number of causes under the umbrella of social justice.  This second prong of the “political invasion” has accelerated the academy’s abandonment of the tradition of humanistic education.  Many professors now regard the classics—the books that lifted Helen Keller out of isolation and ignorance, and that filled Richard Wright with “nothing less than a sense of life itself” as he labored to escape the Jim Crow South—not as a seedbed not of personal growth and cultural renewal, but of misogyny and racism.  The classics are supposed not awaken and instruct, but to demean and marginalize.  They are by no means to be lovingly implanted in young souls, but pressed through a steel mesh of criticism so as to extract object lessons in inequality and injustice.  Little wonder that enrollments have plummeted and programs are collapsing across the humanities: the professoriate has burned the crop and is busily salting the fields.

“We’ve got plenty of artificial intelligences,” the philosopher Stanley Rosen once said; “I’m looking for real ones.”  Real, creative intelligences always spring from an organic accumulation of human life—an accumulation that has for millennia been preserved, cultivated, and transmitted in the tradition of arts and letters, music and scientific exploration.  Today’s servile education produces college graduates who have lost a vital connection with the pulse and ferment of reality, and whose minds are filled with a jumble of fruitless abstractions and social constructions.  This loss impoverishes all who feel the sweet, inevitable pull of the call to become distinctively individual, flesh-and-blood human beings.  Worse, it condemns many who have never yet felt this call to “run nameless through the innumerable multitude” (in Kierkegaard’s words), living life in ignorance of their true and unrepeatable names.

The survival of the liberal arts and the humanities—of education as such—depends on the existence of teachers who treasure the precious inheritance of the past and are allowed to transmit it to their students.  This is a hard truth, for if present trends continue, such teachers will all but vanish from American colleges and universities within a generation.  Still, the humanities will not be entirely extinguished.  Quietly sustained by individual readers and writers, artists and poets, the vital tradition will shelter underground until it someday sprouts in new forms.

Channeling the Voice of God: Singing Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”

By Layne Farmen


“It isn’t music for the casual listener. I think as a musician’s musician, Britten compliments serious musicians by challenging our thinking and our own boundaries… It is a deep, deep work that never lets up on the demands by everyone. It takes all of our efforts to achieve it…”

-Dr. Tim Sharp, Artistic Director of the Tulsa Oratorio

Four months after moving to Oklahoma and with no classical training to speak of, I’m going on a giant stage to perform one of the grandest and most difficult pieces of music ever composed.

A view from the stage

On November 11th The Tulsa Symphony is presenting Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem for the very first time, in honor of the World War I centennial. My wife Annelise, who possesses significant musical ability, talked me into auditioning for the chorus, and much to my surprise, I made it in. It wasn’t until the splitting migraine after the first rehearsal that I realized just how much I was in over my head.

Annelise is an accomplished music teacher, with experience in both primary and secondary education, though we had never attempted a voice lesson together. The day of the audition she helped me dig through her endless bag of music to find a piece that would fit my entirely unimpressive range. We eventually landed on “Homeward Bound,” something always good for inspiring sentimental misty eyes, when performed competently. As I sang and she salvaged I realized I hadn’t really heard my voice in years; not like this.

At the audition Annelise went first, and I snuck up with my ear to the door to listen while she knocked it out of the park: singing something impressive, and in a different language. Of course, she was a no-brainer. After I delivered my piece and presented what was certainly a more difficult decision for Dr. Tim Sharp, he told us we were in.

The imposing front cover


Britten’s War Requiem is a vocally demanding choir piece and is not for the faint of heart. The combination of mathematical composing mixed with opera-like drama originally had me discouraged…but the more it comes together the more excited I am”—Asura Oulds, Bass and TU alumni

Nothing could have prepared me for the first rehearsal. The only experience I can compare it to was the first time I opened Finnegans Wake, but this time it was group confusion. Suddenly I was looking at eccentric bits of musical notation I had never seen before: double sharps? How does one get used to 7/4? And how does one comfortably sing a section where the words carry on without any sense of rhythm, to create a sort of chanting chaos?

There is a sense of community in choral music that builds a camaraderie and unity that directly finds its way into the sound of the performance: my wife has noticed this phenomena in her choirs over the years: when the students like each other, they simply sing better. But no matter how friendly, welcoming, cheery and warm the environment of the Tulsa Oratorio is, when we first looked at the text I’m not sure “strength in numbers” could apply just yet.

In one particularly difficult section, near the end of the “Libera me” I simply couldn’t bear being confused any longer. I was irritated that I wasn’t getting it, irritated that my section wasn’t getting it, and even more irritated that no one was throwing up an SOS signal of any kind. So I raised my hand and didn’t wait to get called on.

I learned later this wasn’t proper procedure: when you have a difficulty, you’re meant to speak to your section leader, who will then document the difficulty and present it to Dr. Sharp at the break, so you don’t slow the momentum of the rehearsal. Rightly so, my interjection was met with side glances from the rest of the ensemble, and at least one glare from the soprano section.

What came out was “could we hear the tenor part on square 114?” What I really was saying was “Just where in the hell ARE we?”


“My personal conviction is that musical compositions are a kind of “world-making” that asks us to inhabit realities which may be different than our own…To me, War Requiem creates a musical world where hope is no longer an assurance but an uncertainty.  There are still moments of incredible beauty and positive affirmations, but they may always be unexpectedly shattered. The piece gives us a sustained opportunity to inhabit an existential struggle that many people find daily within themselves. The beauty of the work lies in its ability to lead us beyond sympathy and into empathy…I sincerely believe that War Requiem, when thoughtfully engaged, is a work of art with the capacity to reacquaint and re-sensitize us.”—Zachary Malavolti, Assistant Artistic Director of the Tulsa Oratorio.

Benjamin Britten

I used to marvel when I saw Annelise perform with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay. Last winter, after an immensely successful run of Carmina Burana and just preceding performances of Verde’s Requiem, she performed Handel’s Messiah with the Florida Orchestra under the direction of Michael Francis. Her favorite section was No. 46, a somber death knell, “Since by man came death” that suddenly leaps exuberantly into joy, “by man came also the resurrection from the dead!” Finding clear meaning in classical texts can often be difficult for contemporary audiences, so far removed by history, language, and space, but the musical contrast here colors the text in completely unambiguous fashion.

Grave, piano, “For as in Adam all die.”

Forte, Allegro, “Even so in Christ shall all be made alive!”

Annelise said she felt during the first performance as if they were collectively channeling the voice of God.

Over the past few years, due in part to my training in the liberal arts and my continued spiritual journey of church-going and theological study, I’ve come to a place where radical pacifism is central to my belief system. It was central to Britten’s too. He left England to live as an exile in America in 1939, and upon returning was recognized as a conscientious objector. His words, stated before a tribunal, resonate across history: “Since I believe that there is in every man the spirit of God, I cannot destroy, and feel it my duty to not to help to destroy as far as I am able, human life, however strongly I may disapprove of the individual’s actions or thoughts.”

Assistant Artistic Director Zachary Malavolti has a great deal to say about how Britten’s ideological ethos comes through in both the text of the Requiem and the technical musicality. Most students of Literature have come in contact with Wilfred Owen, especially the visceral “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” the darkly ironic poem about the horrors of trench warfare in World War I. Britten combines language from the work of Wilfred Owen (himself killed in World War I when he was only 25), with traditional Latin Mass, specifically meant for the remembrance of the dead. To translate this in musical composition, Britten renders the monstrous chaos of war, and simulates the violent shaking apart of Heaven and Earth. While the chorus sings “when heaven and earth are shaken, (trans.)” says Malavolti, “the orchestra doubles in its meter while the chorus’ rhythm remains unaltered. By keeping the large pulses the same for both ensembles, the conductor is able to control two seemingly different tempos. The aural effect is that the chorus and orchestra are getting out of sync (like heaven and earth).”

Wilfred Owen



Art is History’s nostalgia, it prefers a thatched

roof to a concrete factory, and the huge church

above a bleached village.

Derek Walcott, from Omeros


The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

Now men will go content with what we spoiled.

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

Wilfred Owen, from “Strange Meeting”


Last night we had our first rehearsal with Dr. James Bagwell and a fully combined choir, more than doubling the sound we had been working with thus far. Suddenly we were rehearsing the music at tempo, meaning that musical passages that had previously merely skipped along now furiously charged ahead.  “Have no fear!” Bagwell cheered us on after we collectively missed an entrance: “You can’t have any fear!” From the first time since we started rehearsing we got through the entire Requiem, piece by piece, absolutely hammering away at every problem area, white knuckled, blasting through some of the most challenging music ever put to page. Parts of the text that sounded measured, dignified, now sounded ravenous and violent (“Confutatis”).  Near the end of the “Libera me” we were moving so quickly I couldn’t rely on my previous strategy of counting to make my entrances; I lifted my eyes off the page and sang from memory, remarkably, not missing a single note. When going over the first movement, we were instructed to sing as if we were six feet underground, “If it’s right” Bagwell noted, “people will leave wondering what happened.”

Partly because I was struggling with the material myself, I asked Malavolti what audiences should bring with them to the performance on Sunday. How can we prepare ourselves for what we’re about to hear? His first two recommendations, about noting the three distinct ensemble “voices” and listening for the juxtaposition of Wilfred Owen’s poetry with the Latin mass, were very helpful. His third recommendation was central to a culminating question: why do we grapple with texts that we can’t fully understand? “There are not always clear answers” says Malavolti. “The experience comes from wrestling…with the material Britten has provided.” Maybe concepts like “War” really can’t be understood in linear, easily digestible ways. Though we can learn about all of the major events, treaties, dates and tank models from any given textbook, I think the arts alone can bring us face to face with what war feels like, with what it really means.

If it’s right, people will leave wondering what happened

If it’s right, I think we’ll leave wondering too.

Event details can be found and tickets can be purchased HERE.

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Remembering World War I, 100 years later: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem

“My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity …

All a poet can do today is warn.”

words by Wilfred Owen, used on the title page of Britten’s War Requiem

On Sunday November 11th, The War Requiem, Benjamin Britten’s dissonant, inter-textual and pacifistic masterpiece is being brought to Tulsa for the World War I Centennial.

Described on the Tulsa Symphony website as “one of the great defining masterworks of the 20th century,” the performance will involve the Tulsa Oratorio chorus, Tulsa Opera Chorus, Youth Opera, University of Tulsa Concert Chorale, and the Symphony Orchestra under the direction of James Bagwell.  In short, this means that hundreds of elite musicians are lending their skills to represent Britten’s epic and singular vision, including several TU students, faculty and alumni. Dr. Tim Sharp, Artistic Director and Composer of the Tulsa Oratorio describes this collection of ensembles as “iconic.” “I want listeners to see the incredible power art has to capture our most extreme thoughts and emotions and to do so in a way that has beauty and dignity” says Sharp. “It is quite a model of collaboration, art’s power to capture emotions and concepts, and an incredible showing of humanity.”

Zachary Malavolti, the Assistant Artistic Director of the Tulsa Oratorio and a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma describes Benjamin Britten as “one of the leading English composers of the twentieth century” with a “wide and diverse” body of work. “His musical voice is uniquely his own, neither exceptionally modernist nor overly traditional” says Malavolti. “A common thread throughout many of his works is his poignant ability to genuinely convey his personal convictions through his musical structures and rhetoric. Britten was an ardent pacifist and War Requiem is a carefully constructed musical appeal that makes his own passion heard.”

The War Requiem was initially commissioned for the 1962 rebuilding of Britain’s Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by Nazi bombing in 1940. Britten combined the war poetry of Wilfred Owen with text from traditional Latin mass to craft his project,  directly responding to the horrors of war he witnessed during his life. The difficulty of the subject matter directly matches the dissonance of the piece: often abstract, discordant, and difficult to follow. “It is a piece that asks more from its audience that just mere listening” says Malavolti. “It is a piece that wants you to wrestle with its material and message. War Requiem resonates because it asks for the same thoughtfulness that this centennial itself asks of us.”

Dr. Tim Sharp and the Tulsa Oratorio

Though the complexity of the piece and the morbidity of the subject matter could seem to paint a picture of inaccessibility and audience alienation, Britten’s piece has had resounding commercial success, and has deeply connected with audiences throughout the world. “This is a FIRST for the Tulsa Symphony, TOC, and TU.” says Dr. Tim Sharp. “It is truly an epic event. I would love for our audience to marvel at what we are able to do in our community as collaborative artists and musicians. I would love for this to be symbolic of the richness of our culture in this area.”

As part of the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities theme of “Memory,” we hope that the presentation of Britten’s manifesto of pacifism is an effective way to use the memory of the past in order to forge ahead into a brighter future.

You can find further event details linked below.

Classics II – Britten’s War Requiem







On Collective Memory

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to continue its series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2018-19 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of memory – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This post was composed by Liz Blood, a freelance journalist and writer whose work focuses on place, contemporary art, indigenous peoples, immigrant issues, and the environment.


“On Collective Memory”

I have a recurring memory: Our cohort of ten Oklahoma Center for Humanities fellows are circled around a large wooden conference table in the University of Tulsa’s Tyrell Hall. It is dark outside and we are deep in discussion. Someone in our group uses the phrase “collective memory.” Some of us nod. Others—myself included—furrow our brows and puzzle.

“Collective memory” is a term that engages and confuses me. And for the last nine weeks or so that we have been studying memory, I can’t seem to let it go. It makes sense that a group, the collective, shares a memory—say, a family’s memory of the birth of the first grandchild—and individuals in the group can each recall it. On the other hand, I am concerned that collective memory is only possible for the living. The ancestors of that family can’t recall this memory and those born after this first grandchild won’t be able to recall it, either.

And what about a larger group, like the citizens of an entire state, or country? Are they able to recall things through which they did not live?

“The memory of a society extends as far as the groups composing it,” writes French sociologist and philosopher Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945), who contributed to the study of collective memory through his book of the same name. Halbwachs believed the collective did have a memory separate from that of the individual, and that the individual’s understanding of the past was bound up in the group’s consciousness. But he also believed collective memory and history to be ultimately opposed to one other. “If history is restricted to preserving the image of the past still having a place in the contemporary collective memory,” he writes, “then it retains only what reminds of interest to present-day society—that is, very little.”

As I’ve been reading Halbwachs and tripping over these ideas, I was happy to see my colleague, Dr. Jennie Ikuta from TU’s political science department, discuss collective memory on a national scale, as it pertains to Monticello and its remembrance (or not) of slavery.

“If there exists such a thing as an American collective memory, then Monticello—the estate of Thomas Jefferson—is presumably part of it,” Ikuta writes. “In visiting Monticello, we as Americans are invited to remember something about our national past. But what exactly are we remembering?” She goes on to explore how, when the keepers of a place like Monticello cause its visitors to recall only pieces of that history—such as the good and not the bad, the remembrance is incomplete.

Here’s Halbwachs again: “General history starts only when … the social memory is fading or breaking up. So long as a remembrance continues to exist, it is useless to set it down in writing or otherwise fix it in memory. Likewise the need to write the history of a period, a society, or even a person is only aroused when the subject is already too distant in the past to allow for the testimony of those who preserve some remembrance of it.”

If history is a break in the continuity of memory—in other words, those learning the history were not those who experienced it happening—then the collective cannot truly recall what it did not directly experience. So what is the experience Ikuta describes? She begins her post with a built in question: “If there exists such a thing as an American collective memory.” I believe it does exist, I’m just not sure about the mechanics of it.

Historical places like Monticello, or memorials like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., require of their visitors a more imaginative kind of remembering—learning and recalling the facts of history, imagining experiences through which they did not live, and then potentially engaging with a kind of prospective memory, or memory focused on the future and what might be done differently in times to come.

“With respect to collective memory,” Ikuta writes, “…the question cannot only be whether or not we remember certain morally problematic features of our history—although that is certainly important—but also, how we do so.”

That how seems to have everything to do with making collective memories not only accurate, but also complete, as in a kind of repair or re-build. As a nonfiction writer, I’m interested in how my own work and that of others—whether visual, literary, performative, etc.—might influence the way a culture remembers by reconstructing in the present fixed memories of the past. Halbwachs believed the living continuously did this, based on their present needs and desires.

According to Mary Douglas, who introduces the English translation of The Collective Memory, Halbwachs’ concept was of “social segments consisting of live individuals who sustain their common interests by their own selective and highly partial view of history.” History, Halbwachs writes, “is a collection of the most notable facts in the memory of man,” but it is selected, combined, and evaluated “in accord with necessities and rules not imposed on the groups that had through time guarded [the events] as living trust.”

In our current situtation, it is no wonder that public spaces of remembering–like Monticello, the former Robert E. Lee Elementary here in Tulsa, and various institutions, monuments, and memorials around the country–are being publicly (you might say collectively) reevaluated in new ways.

I think of the collective memory Ikuta writes of as something always in the making. Individuals do the living, experiencing, and remembering. How we are taught history, what we are taught, what we teach, and what we remember becomes just one facet of collective memory.


Halbwachs, Maurice. The Collective Memory. Translated by Francis J. Ditter and Vida Yazdi Ditter, Harper & Row, 1980.

From the Voices of Oklahoma: Jeanne Eason Phillips Remembers

From The Voices of Oklahoma: Jeanne Eason Phillips Remembers…

In this memorable interview, John Erling chats with Jeanne Eason Phillips and her daughter Judy–two Oklahoma natives who lived through segregation and the civil rights movement.


“You know what? Every era has its own goodness. I can’t think that there’s any worse in any part of it. Life gets better all the time, the more you look at it.”

For the next piece in our series “From the Voices of Oklahoma,” documenting stand-out interviews from John Erling’s extensive oral history project, we’re looking at his talk with Jeanne Eason Phillips and her daughter Judy Eason McIntyre. From the “Voices” bio, “Even though they endured the pain of racism, Jeanne and Judy tell a very upbeat story of making Oklahoma a better place to live.” Upbeat is putting it lightly, as the banter between Judy and Jeanne is often electric and hilarious. At times it seems that Judy is the one conducting the interview, as she is clearly fascinated with her mother’s story, and wants to explore every little piece that she hasn’t yet heard about. Her interjections are almost the best part of the proceedings, whether it’s her handful of follow-up questions about her mother’s love life: (“Well, when did you meet Dad?” “When did Daddy come? Was he there when you got there?” “Did you date somebody before Daddy?”), or her amused incredulity that her mother could ever dance the “jitter-bug” (through laughter: “I can’t imagine Mother doing that.”)

Though not initially the major subject of the interview, Judy herself has an amazing story, and she takes John through her upbringing, experiencing horrific racism in college, joining the Black Panther movement and then cutting ties with it, and going on to serve ten years in Oklahoma’s legislature.

Jeanne and Judy’s account weaves through the story of the African-American experience across generations, ideologies, and perspectives, from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X, revolutionary action from outside to political change from within.

Jeanne attended Langston University, married her husband Garland Eason, and together they supported all four of their children through college. Garland worked multiple jobs, and Phillips was at her children’s school so much that everyone thought she was the teacher; Judy amusingly notes that “I was always having to look over my shoulder.” Jeanne has a remarkably positive outlook on every nook and cranny of life, from the process of aging to her disturbing experiences of discrimination. On whether she is happy about her fast approaching ninetieth birthday: “Oh, yes, oh, yes, yes. Every one of them I look forward to. I’ve never been one of those that say, ‘Well, I’m in the forties and gonna stay.’ No, no, no, no, I welcome every one of mine.”

Even through this positivity, Eason’s narrative brings to light several painful and unjust realities of what it means to be black in America. Choices have to be made: do you educate your children about the horrors of discrimination, or do you shield them from racism until they are adults themselves? Jeanne and Garland chose to protect their children from the hatred, from the darkness, and throughout the interview you can hear both Phillips and McIntyre wonder about whether or not it was the right call.

“I think that’s there good and bad in both ways.” Phillips says. “But we did not want them to start hating or having your mind made up.” Because of this parenting decision, Judy never experienced direct personal racism until she attended OU. “…it made a real rebel out of her” says Phillips. In McIntyre’s words across the interview, “I think they just didn’t talk about it because both of them didn’t want us being that angry black person. So I went to OU when I was called the N word at class. I didn’t know what was going on…And then you walked on campus and from my dorm to the library or wherever I went it was, “Black bitch,” “Nigger,” just the whole bit… I cried, I cried… Begging Daddy to let me come home and leave that place.”

Both Jeanne and Judy were there for Martin Luther King’s march on Washington. They attended with their church, and their pastor Ben Hill introduced King. Phillips perspective is quite funny in retrospect: “I didn’t know anything about Martin Luther King…I said to the person standing next to me, I said, ‘If this man can’t speak Reverand Hill will just kill him.’” Then she experienced one of the most climactic events in all of American history. “I didn’t know what he was dreaming about until I got to OU” says Judy. “OU was the life-changing.”

Judy then tells her story about joining the Black Panthers; it is best to hear it from her. She left the panthers after a particularly terrifying experience with the police, but the anger remained for years. She worked in child welfare and wouldn’t work with white clients. “I wouldn’t even go to lunch with the white workers. I wouldn’t talk with them except to have to answer questions and stuff.”

Judy’s story should help audiences to reconsider the false equivalencies wrapped up in terms like “reverse racism” or phrases like “racist against white people,” and the rampant cliché of “both sides-ism.” Responding to hatred is always more accurately described as self-defense. Even so, when Erling labels Mcintyre’s understandable response to injustice “reverse discrimination” McIntyre doesn’t miss a beat” “oh yeah, they used to say I was a racist. And I proudly said, “I am.” She credits her parents with her eventual de-radicalization: “thank God for my parents that I was able to move back to some sanity…And some stability”

When Jeanne reflects on racism today she notices shame as the one notable difference: “People who are racist don’t mind you knowing that they’re racist. That’s the feeling I got, ’cause when I see things like with the President when they do all of these little ugly things and say all these little things, they want you to know exactly how they feel about it. So it’s open, it’s in the open, so you don’t get away with anything anymore without being called on it.” But for herself? “I don’t even let it touch me. It can’t even hurt me.”

Judy traces all of her success to parents that valued education and church. Erling asks Jeanne Eason Phillips to close with what she is most proud of: her legacy in life: “Oh, dear. I just want to be remembered as Jeanne. I just want to be remembered as a good person.  A person who loved life and people. Nothing spectacular. I’m proud of a lot of things, the accomplishments with four children. My biggest pride is in the accomplishments that they’ve made and we desired for them.”

Check out the full interview on the Voices of Oklahoma.



Collective Memory at Monticello

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to continue its series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2018-19 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of memory – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This post was composed by Dr. Jennie Ikuta, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Tulsa.

Collective Memory at Monticello

If there exists such a thing as an American collective memory, then Monticello—the estate of Thomas Jefferson—is presumably part of it. In visiting Monticello, we as Americans are invited to remember something about our national past. But what exactly are we remembering?

In July 2016, I found myself in Charlottesville, Virginia; like many visitors, I drove to Monticello to meander the former president’s estate. Over the last few years, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation—which administers and oversees the home and its grounds—has drawn national attention regarding its concerted effort to correct the public portrayal of Monticello that until the 1990s, did not acknowledge the existence of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved mistress. This refusal to acknowledge the existence of Hemings—and presumably, slavery more broadly—grew, as historian Christa Dierksheide explained, from a fear that doing so might stain Jefferson’s reputation.[1] To correct these historical omissions, the Foundation has embarked on a multi-year, $35 million plan to renovate and restore Monticello to its appearance during Jefferson’s lifetime. This plan would render the existence of slavery publicly visible.

As part of its attempt to publicly acknowledge the existence of slavery at Monticello, the Foundation has also created tours such as the “Slavery at Monticello Tour” and the “Hemings Family Tour” that visitors can embark on in addition to the main attraction for most visitors, the “Main House Tour,” which centers Jefferson’s scientific and philosophical achievements. Presumably, the Foundation has admirable aims: it seeks to offer a more complete, and therefore, a truer description of life on the plantation. However, how the Foundation has gone about this is curious. Crucially, both the “Slavery at Monticello Tour” and the “Hemings Family Tour” are separate from the “Main House Tour.” the “Slavery at Monticello Tour” is included in the price of admission to the “Monticello Day Pass & House Tour,” even as the slavery tour is separate from the tour of the main house. However, the “Hemings Family Tour” is separately ticketed from the Monticello Day Pass & House Tour. Even more intriguing is that while the “Hemings Family Tour” incorporates the tour of the house, the tour of the house does not incorporate the “Hemings Family Tour.” In other words, there are two ways to experience the main house—one with and one without the perspectives of slaves. As the visiting experience of Monticello is currently structured, visitors curate their own experience of Monticello and thereby, choose to see what they want to see. As a result, one possibility is that a visitor can elect to only embark on the House Tour, and thereby ignore the existence of slavery at the estate altogether. In this way, slavery can be both visible and invisible to visitors of Monticello; if one can choose to see, one can also choose to not see, or to ignore. Monticello certainly acknowledged the existence of slavery, but ironically, the bifurcated structure of its tours enable visitors to avoid acknowledging it. Another possible visiting experience might take visitors through the Main House Tour as well as the Slavery at Monticello Tour; however, the relationship between the two remains unspecified. One might experience Jefferson’s home imagining that slavery, while unfortunate, was merely incidental to his accomplishments–that slavery was an exception to an otherwise remarkable life. It was as though one could marvel at Jefferson’s achievements by walking through the Main House, and then as a separate matter, lament the existence of slavery.

But this response misses something important, even foundational. Slavery was not incidental to Monticello; it was inextricably bound up with and made the wondrous home and many of its owner’s great achievements possible.  To visit Monticello is to see that slavery was part of the place, but what part exactly? The strangely divided tours do little to suggest that there was any relationship between the achievements of Jefferson, on the one hand, and slavery, on the other. In this way, the Foundation fails to show how slavery underwrote and made Monticello possible.

With respect to collective memory, then, the question cannot only be whether or not we remember certain morally problematic features of our history—although that is certainly important—but also, how we do so. As slavery is currently situated in the public presentation of Monticello, one can either choose to ignore it or imagine that slavery was simply a lamentable glitch—as opposed to a defining feature—of the system. Recognizing the existence of slavery at Monticello is important, but it is not enough; it is crucial to recognize the central role it occupied at Monticello.

What could the Thomas Jefferson Foundation do to create a more accurate and complete experience for visitors of Monticello? One possibility is to create one tour that combines the Main House Tour, the Slavery at Monticello Tour, and the Hemings Family Tour—and draws the deep connections between them. This more comprehensive tour would render the standalone Main House Tour obsolete. In fact, as of the writing of this post, the Foundation has incorporated a newly opened exhibit on the life of Hemings into the Main House Tour, and it plans to create a single tour that features the life of Jefferson as well as the slaves who made his life possible.[3] These developments are a step in the right direction towards making our collective memories not only more complete, but also, more accurate.

It matters not just that we remember, but what we remember about it, and how we do so.


[1] NPR, “Monticello Restoration Project Puts an Increased Focus on Jefferson’s Slaves,” https://www.npr.org/2017/02/20/516292305/monticello-restoration-project-puts-an-increased-focus-on-jeffersons-slaves

[2] As of August 2018,

[3] Steve Dubb, “New Exhibits at Monticello Recover Slave Narratives,” Nonprofit Quarterly, June 19th, 2018, https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2018/06/19/new-exhibits-at-monticello-recover-slave-narratives/

Making and Involuntary Memory

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to continue its series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2018-19 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of memory – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This post was composed by Dr. Jeffrey Drouin, an associate professor of English at TU.

Making and Involuntary Memory

Shortly after 9/11, while living in Brooklyn with an old friend, I was surprised to hear a woman singing in his room. “Jonathan didn’t tell me he had a guest,” I thought, as I walked in to see several black boxes with glowing glass bottles on them. Strangely, there was no one else in the room, yet my ears told me that a real person was there, standing exactly in one spot and singing about science like an impassioned schoolteacher. I had walked into 1954. Mabel Mercer was performing Cole Porter’s “Experiment” with piano accompaniment in a studio room that had somehow been overlaid with this room by means of a seamless space-time fold. I was there, able to hear every nuance of breath, the wetness of her voice, the acoustics of a space that was considerably larger than the “real” one we inhabited, and most importantly the emotion that guided her interpretation of Porter’s classic tune.

It turned out that my friend Alex had loaned Jonathan a turntable, some records, and a system of thermionic vacuum tube amplifiers. It changed my life, leaving an impression that, many years later, led me to learn the basics of vacuum tube electronics in a search for that lost sound – that lost time. I built many different circuits but eventually poured all of my scholarly effort into documenting and building the amplifiers I’d heard back in 2001, in the hope that duplicating them would result in the same uncanny effect.

Only after three years of building amplifiers did I realize that I was engaged in a project very similar to that of one of the authors whom I study, the French novelist Marcel Proust. His À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past), a sprawling masterpiece comprising roughly 4,400 pages in seven volumes, seeks to unlock the mystery of involuntary memory, to make the past present again as a form of being. Strangely, Proust’s narrator ascribes the locus of involuntary memory to objects rather than the mind.

“[T]here is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and thus effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison…. And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it. All the efforts of our intellect must prove futile.” (I.59)

Trying to achieve this type of memory deliberately is impossible, since its power depends on chance, yet try we must. Hence the title: Recherche, the Search. It can become a lifelong attempt to uncover the mysteries of a form of memory that only occurs when we stop trying, when some object provides a sensory impression that opens the boundary between past and present. The memories we recall by acts of will tend to appear as images of past experiences held in the mind’s eye, while involuntary memories are a form of resurrection, the re-vivification of a past event, a flashback – a chance moment in which some sensory channel makes the past present and alive again.

Releasing the genie from the thermionic bottles is a goal not limited to old amplifiers, however. What analog design brings to literature and the resurrection of recorded music, digital design in the humanities offers by way of a different yet somewhat similar kind of making.

Digital Humanities is a somewhat new field that uses computing applications to ask and answer humanistic questions. During graduate school, in order to facilitate recall for a meditative essay on the Recherche’s recurring use of church architecture as a motif, I made a spreadsheet containing all of the relevant passages (totaling about 190,000 words) and related information such as keywords and contextual notes. With the help of a friend, I later turned it into a database, paired the passages with church images, wrapped it in a blog, and put it all online as Ecclesiastical Proust Archive. Later on, I was exposed to computational techniques such as text mining, which processes natural language texts to reveal linguistic and stylistic patterns; topic modeling, which discovers patterns of terms that recur together; and network graphing, which shows connections among a set of structured data such as a spreadsheet.

The magic in these algorithmic techniques lies in visualizing patterns in the text that would not be uncovered in the act of serial reading: they reveal a latent reality by means of a different way of seeing. Take network graphing of the church motif spreadsheet, for instance. If we eliminate the temporal dimension to make all connections simultaneously present, what shape would the motif take? What patterns would appear among the passages and their keywords? How might it change our understanding of the novel? Without any particular question or reasoned possible outcome, I let the algorithm do its work to unlock the specter I’d been hunting. This may have been a naïve use of tools, but the first graph I generated with Gephi resembled the explosion of a firework in all the uncanniness with which the apparition of Mabel Mercer appeared to us all those years ago. Later iterations resemble a rose window. The church motif was centrifugal, radiating from the center rather than appearing as a periodic repetition along a chronological line, an artifact of the layout algorithm used in that instance.  Patterns revealed through text mining and topic modeling of the whole text lead to similarly unpredictable insights. In a way, digital techniques are akin to involuntary memory in that they expose hidden realities that we hadn’t thought to seek and raise questions we hadn’t thought to ask.

Proust’s narrative, like my exploration of audio design and Digital Humanities, works by creating the conditions through which involuntary memory can work upon us. All of this is made possible by the fact that the digital medium has shifted the archive from its institutional home in a building that stores official records, to a space in which anyone with sufficient means and technical ability can compile their own material, then create something new with it. Throughout much of the Recherche, objects such as gothic cathedrals and Norman churches play a kind of pagan role as the repositories of involuntary memory, of memory that we do not directly control, of collective, historical memory whose art forms act across generations and transform the subjectivities of individual lives wrought in time. Narratives of national, local, and religious memory are stored in stained glass, statuary, ornamentation; they are reproduced in performances of the liturgy, weddings, funerals, and even the simple gathering of the townsfolk once a week. They stand as archives of the primary material out of which the individual psyche and the social body are made, sacramentally transforming the deep history of Proust’s France into the forms of experience undergone by the narrator and his contemporaries. Today, prosthetic memory devices store the digital data of the past and, though we might purposely initiate a search or an algorithmic analysis, they remind us that sometimes we don’t get to choose the ways in which memory works, or works through us.

Work Cited

Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time, Volume I: Swann’s Way. Trans. C.K. Scot Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D.J. Enright. New York: Modern Library, 1992.

Where Memory and Trauma Meet

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to introduce the first of a new series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2018-19 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of memory – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This first post was composed by Layla Mortadha, a sophomore at TU studying political science and French language, and one of the two student fellows this year.


“Where Memory and Trauma Meet”

The train ride from the heart of Paris to my apartment was a straight, twenty-five-minute shot. After a day in the city, on my way home, I would take a seat and watch the gradient of people change from light to dark as we approached the city’s edge. Travelers would hop on and off in just two stops, someone new always asking to sit next to me. Somewhere in the middle of my journey I would notice fewer noisy tourists and more families board. I stayed in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, renting an apartment from a local man in the Goutte d’Or, the “Drop of Gold” neighborhood, known for its North African and sub-Saharan communities. I booked the place by chance, but staying in this neighborhood offered a rare experience for an American visiting Paris. I traded decorated mille feuilles for sheet pans of baklava, and exploring the similarities between North African and Iraqi cuisine gave me a comforting sense of home while I was abroad.

As in most cities, life in Paris happens in the streets. The first person you may speak to in the morning is the baker down the avenue, and the person you may say goodnight to is the driver who took you from the subway station to your bus stop. While public services are often written off as dirty or inefficient, they are essential to equitable, accessible, and integrated cities. In serving all, public services like rail systems and schools bring people together by requiring interaction and encouraging civility among difference. In places like Tulsa, where there is a need for better public services, public life suffers. Community suffers. As we turn to our smart phones more often than our city squares, it becomes easier to stay confined to our silos. It becomes easier to forget about narratives different from our own. In Tulsa, this comes at the loss of our own history. The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 continues to create silos in our city, affecting not only Black Tulsans, but immigrants and noncitizens living in the city. While public spaces alone cannot alleviate this trauma, they can serve as foundations for understanding and reconciliation.

In larger cities, collective memory and therefore, collective meaning are attached to public spaces. Particularly when focused on the memory of trauma, public historical sites offer space for mourning, reflection, and community as integral parts of an ongoing healing process. Sites like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., for example, hold many memories and thus tend to become part of a city’s identity. However, while monuments and memorials may serve as points of entry to accessing a public space, they do not guarantee reconciliation. In The Culture of Redemption, literary theorist Leo Bersani challenges art’s role in reconciliation, arguing that “catastrophes of history [appear to] matter less if they are somehow compensated in art.”1 What then does lend itself to reconciliation in public spaces?

Urban architect Alberto Pérez-Gómez calls public spaces a “theater for memory capable of embodying truths that make it possible to affirm life and contemplate a better future.”2 His mention of multiple truths suggests a public space that upholds a single truth or only a few truths is incomplete, static, even damaging. To activate the power of the public space and the power of place making, a city must insist on racial, ethnic, and gender inclusion that questions how public spaces are used.  It must be aware of who is present and who is not as it challenges any one dominant narrative by valuing many truths. It must also continuously seek inclusion that welcomes dialogue, listens to all voices, and celebrates cross-cultural experiences. It must be vibrant, musical, and memorable. We resist historical amnesia by encouraging our children to make new memories in more colorful, inclusive public spaces. We reconcile past wrongs by teaching our children that the memory of the past lives in our memory today. Finally, we ensure a better future by drawing the memories we make back to our painful past with the hope that our children will remember to do the same when it is their turn to reimagine the spaces we leave behind us.


  1. Bersani, Leo. The Culture of Redemption. To Excel. 2000. Print.
  2. See the essay by Alberto Pérez-Gómez in Richard Henriquez, Memory Theatre, edited by Howard Shubert (Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1993; distributed by MIT Press).