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'I consider the study of literature a radical political act'

'I consider the study of literature a radical political act'

Senior Associate Dean Heather Russell, a professor of English literature, challenges her students “to think, write and be fully expressed in ways that matter for their whole survival.”

July 11, 2019 at 3:20pm

This article is part of FIU Magazine's summer issue devoted to "Voices of the Community," which features faculty, alumni and students writing about what they are most passionate.

By Heather Russell

“Poetry is not a luxury.” So writes Audre Lorde, whose work is fueled by belief in the transformative power of language to tangibly and materially create a better, more just world. She provides a template to reclaim the radical power of feeling as expressed through language to imagine, for example, what democracy might look like, a world where everyone has equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Lorde writes, “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black mother within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.”

In my classes, I have worked to encourage students to engage literary study as a radical political act, where we examine how language, belief-systems and power operate in lockstep. One way we talk about these issues is by invoking jazz. We watch, for example, a performance by the John Coltrane quartet, and I ask students to tell me what they see and hear. Invariably they point to the disordered order, the unharmonized harmony, the fact that though the musicians are jamming together, each one has a chance to "blow solo" when the other musicians give her or him, a chance, a space to "speak." Everyone gets an equal opportunity to present their version, to improvise, to perform their interpretation (none more important than the other) of the shared song. The collective comes back together. They are a community of players once again. It is not surprising that jazz is considered the most democratic of genresmetaphor for how we might do difference/community at the same time. The jazz novel (as my students come to understand it) has no hero, has multiple storytellers, multiple and even competing versions, rejects the linear plot line. 

And then my students and I move on to the limbo dance, believed to have been "born" during the middle passage, when captured Africans were being transported for enslavement in the "New World." Suppressed in the cramped, dehumanizing and degrading space of the ship’s holdthey imaginatively figure out how to move around despite their violent confinement. The limbo dance is performed with a rigid limbo stick which is held by two persons on either side and is gradually lowered while the dancer must glide underneath untouched by the increasingly suppressive stick. We might imaginethen, the limbo stick as standing in for how all oppressive regimes operate. In this case, we were speaking of the African holocaust, but we could as easily be thinking about any number of other contemporary social challenges, all of which are trapped in the language of binariesgood/bad right/wrong citizen/alien thinking/feeling. Conversely, the "winner" of the limbo dance is the most dexterous, the most fluid, is multiform, is able to morph her body to resist and, in the end, emerge on the other side.

For our FIU students the lessons of limbo and jazz are of vital importance. Latinx, black, brown, LGBTQ, Dreamers, first-gen, immigrantthey know full well, even if they don’t yet possess the language and tools to express it, that they are too often positioned on the negative side of the binary. We work together, therefore, to give the lie to the power of binary thinking, to challenge them to think, write, feel and be fully expressed in ways that matter for their whole survival. To reclaim their grandmothers’ stories, their linguistic and multicultural diversities, and their dreams. We live in a beautiful and ugly, complicated world. Reading, analyzing and writing about literature gives us ways to imagine new canvases upon which we can paint our collective experiences.

In her Nobel Prize lecture, Toni Morrison says, “Word-work is sublime, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human differencethe way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” We do language. I do believe that language is power, and that we have a fundamental responsibility to our students and the greater FIU community to help to empower our students to wield the freeing language of feeling, marked by the diversity and inclusion that are vital to our collective futures. Indeed, language is not a luxury. 

Russell is a senior associate dean in the College of Arts, Sciences and Education.