All-School Read and Write
Dear students, faculty, and Loomis Chaffee community members,
This summer, instead of the traditional all-school read, we are asking you to explore a collection of reading materials and then engage in written reflection about your experience during the spring and summer of 2020.
The first half of this year has been characterized by a degree of social disruption and change that many of us have never before experienced in our lifetimes. The COVID-19 pandemic closed down businesses and schools all over the world. On March 16, 2020, Loomis Chaffee joined the ranks of schools venturing into the world of online distance learning for the entirety of the spring term. Travel became highly restricted. Countless events that bind us together—athletic competitions, concerts, graduation ceremonies—were cancelled. Millions of Americans filed for unemployment, and the first responders and essential workers who continued to work through the pandemic found themselves facing unprecedented challenges and risks.
Back in March or April, it would have been difficult to imagine that any other topic could rival the pandemic in terms of its impact on our discourse and daily lives. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed when a police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, even after Mr. Floyd became unresponsive. The killing of George Floyd, part of a pattern of reprehensible acts that took the lives of other Black Americans, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, sparked protests that have rocked our already teetering sense of complacency. Across the nation and around the globe, people took to the streets and various online platforms to insist that Black lives matter and to demand systemic reform of the institutions that perpetuate violence, injustice, and inequality.
The pandemic and questions of social justice are far from independent of one another. Asians and Asian Americans have faced blatant racism and personal attacks as a result of ignorant perceptions around COVID-19. The pandemic has exposed dramatic disparities in social and economic systems and health outcomes, as Black communities, Latinx communities, and Native American communities have been hit disproportionately hard by the disease. The very idea of social responsibility is revealed to be more complicated than we might think when we see protestors donning masks to gather and march.
The Assignment: All of these factors have reinforced our decision to transform the all-school read into an opportunity for writing and reflection. Whether you choose to write about the pandemic, current events surrounding race and racism in America, or some combination of the two, we hope that this assignment will allow you first to process and then to communicate—to share what has been unique about your individual experience and to connect with others over what is universal about living through these historic months. What can your voice add to the conversation? Where does your personal story intersect with the story of our times?
We want to invite many genres and modes of expression: letters, personal essays, poetry, podcasts, interviews, comic strips, and more. To offer guidance and inspiration as you think about what you might want to create, we have provided prompts and reading materials (see below). Some of these pieces were written during the current pandemic and protests; others focus on past events with parallels to the present. Collectively, the works featured represent a variety of ways that writers have reflected upon moments of crisis and social change. Read and listen to all of the materials on this page and investigate some of the links before you begin writing.
Students should be prepared to submit their work to their advisors at the start of the fall term. Submissions do not need to be long to be thoughtful. While we recommend that most pieces should be between 250 and 750 words, we acknowledge that some genres may lend themselves to shorter or longer submissions. In addition, you should not feel constrained by the categories below. If you have a creative idea, we want to hear from you.
Finally, we know that many students completed projects or writing assignments about the pandemic in their classes this spring. Assignments that were written for class may not be submitted to the All-School Read and Write; you should plan to expand beyond your class assignment or experiment with another topic or genre.
Please contact Kate Saxton (email@example.com), Director of Writing Initiatives, or Elizabeth Parada (firstname.lastname@example.org), Dean of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, with any questions about the project. We wish you good luck, good health, and productive writing.
Requirements: What do we expect from you?
- Read and listen to all of the materials collected on this page.
- Explore some of the supplementary links that interest you or that relate to the genre of writing you plan to undertake.
- Generate a piece of writing (or a creative submission with a clear writing component) that explores social disruption and change in 2020; you may choose to reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic, race and racism in America, or the relationship between these phenomena.
- Aim to write between 250 and 750 words.
- Be prepared to submit your work to your advisor on the first day of the fall term.
Prompts: Where should you begin?
You could write about…
- something that you have found especially challenging. When have you experienced loss or adversity this spring?
- something that you are grateful for or hopeful about. What are the unexpected benefits of isolation or of the disruption to the status quo that we have seen? What hopes do you have for positive change in the future?
- someone who has inspired, frustrated, or surprised you as you have watched them navigate present circumstances.
- somewhere that will never be the same. Think about the spaces and places that are important to you and how these locations have changed, in ways large or small, over the past several months.
- something that you want to teach others or share with others. Do you have any personal expertise or have you conducted any research that can contribute to a productive dialogue?
Reading Materials: What can you create?
Consider the categories and examples below.
- 1. Personal Narrative, Personal Essay, or Op-Ed
- 2. Letter
- 3. Poem
- 4. Podcast
- 5. Interview
- 6. Song with Original Lyrics
- 7. Visual Artwork with an Artist Statement or Reflection
- 8. Comic Strip or Short Graphic Narrative
In troubling times, writers have often turned to narrative writing to express themselves, their concerns, and their core beliefs. For this option, craft an essay in which you draw upon your personal experience to illuminate your perspective, aiming to employ rich imagery and descriptive details so that your readers can fully appreciate your point of view. You may also choose to express your thoughts in the form of an Op-Ed, a formal expression of a strong and informed opinion shared with a target audience. Traditionally, these pieces of journalism were published in a newspaper opposite an editorial piece to which the writer was directly responding.
Please read the following example of a powerful narrative: Leslie Jamison’s account of her illness in isolation with her young daughter titled “Since I Became Symptomatic.”
Since I Became Symptomatic
By Leslie Jamison
The only person I have touched in a week is my two-year-old daughter. Every selfie I take of us is a photograph of me trying to inhale her. The streets outside are empty, the ambulance sirens constant, the sunshine an insult. Beyond our windows, the city is running out of ventilators. Stores have signs in their windows that look lifted from the apocalypse films I loved back when I thought they were metaphor rather than prophecy: due to the spread of COVID-19 we are indefinitely closed. My daughter and I haven’t left the apartment in four days, ever since I became symptomatic.
That’s a lie. I left once, to take the trash down. I couldn’t smell it, because I can’t smell anything—the ability vanished suddenly, along with my sense of taste; the newest symptom in the news—but when the pile of banana peels and mashed zucchini pieces became impossible to push back into the bin, I knew it was time. In the mail vestibule downstairs, I saw a man in a blue mask who’d come to pick up someone else’s laundry. When he pulled the mask from his mouth to speak, I shrank away from him. I’m sure he thought I was afraid of what I’d get from him, when really I was afraid of what he’d get from me. I was afraid to speak. I imagined the virus traveling on particles of my spit. I imagined nothing. It was all plain fact. Why couldn’t I just tell him, I have the virus? It got caught in my throat. I had a vector’s shame.
The virus. Its sinewy, intimate name. What does it feel like in my body today? Shivering under blankets. A hot itch behind the eyes. Three sweatshirts in the middle of the day. My daughter trying to pull another blanket over my body with her tiny arms. An ache in the muscles that somehow makes it hard to lie still. This loss of taste has become a kind of sensory quarantine. It’s as if the quarantine keeps inching closer and closer to my insides. First I lost the touch of other bodies; then I lost the air; now I’ve lost the taste of bananas. Nothing about any of these losses is particularly unique. I’ve made a schedule so I won’t go insane with the toddler. Five days ago, I wrote Walk/Adventure! on it, next to a cut-out illustration of a tiger—as if we’d see tigers on our walks. It was good to keep possibility alive.
They say the quarantine is tough on parents. The quarantine. As if it weren’t plural. As if we weren’t all living our own. Being a single parent is like being a parent except you’re always alone. Being a single parent in quarantine is like being a parent except the inside of your mind has become an insane asylum echoing with the sound of your own voice reading the same picture books over and over again: Mr. Rabbit, I want help. The Dark was not hard to find. Hello, Stripes. Hello, Spots. Hello, wonder. Hello, WHOA. What’s that? It’s a RUNAWAY PEA. Puffins sit on muffins. Snakes sit on cakes. Lambs sit on jams. Bees sit on keys. Little girl, you really do want help. You must do something to make the world more beautiful.
Right, yes. Today. In this doomed world. Something beautiful, for her. On our schedule, I’ve thought of many possible stimulating games, all of which are harder to imagine playing with the virus in my blood: tea party, dance party, tearing-up-tissue-paper party. I can still imagine watching the live feed from the zoo, but it’s hit-and-miss. Sometimes it’s just a koala with his eyes closed who looks ill, like the rest of us. It hardly matters what I put on the schedule anyway. My daughter knows what she likes. Her favorite game is leaping headfirst from the laundry onto the hardwood. Her second-favorite game is stuffing my bras in the garbage. Her third-favorite game is squirting diaper cream onto the floor and then handing me one of her wipes and saying, “Wipe.” When I give her A Look, she smiles slyly. “Wipe, please.” She knows the drill.
The only way I can write any of this is to sit with her on the floor and give her a pen and notebook of her own, so she can scribble beside me.
When I wake with my heart pounding in the middle of the night, my sheets are soaked with sweat that must be full of virus. The virus is my new partner, our third companion in the apartment, wetly draped across my body in the night. When I get up for water I have to sit on the floor, halfway to the sink, so I don’t faint.
You can read the rest of the piece at The New York Review of Books: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/03/26/since-i-became-symptomatic/
For an essay that combines personal writing and journalistic reflection, consider Cathy Park Hong’s “The Slur I Never Expected to Hear in 2020” about the racism that Asians and Asian Americans have faced during the pandemic.
The Slur I Never Expected to Hear in 2020
By Cathy Park Hong
Early in February, I read unsupported speculations that a virus ravaging a distant city called Wuhan was due to a Chinese taste for a strange scaled mammal called the pangolin, which resembles an anteater but is cuddlier than its lumbering tube-snouted look-alike. Around that time, during a dinner party, I laughed when a friend quipped: “How do you eat a pangolin anyway? Do you dip its scales in butter like an artichoke?” When I tweeted that same joke the next day, a writer I knew responded, “It’s used for medicinal purposes.” He was simply stating a fact, but I suddenly realized that I could be spreading stereotypes about Chinese people. I deleted the tweet with a reminder to self: Make fun of Asians only around other Asians.
[The week of March 13], I found out that both my book tour and classes were canceled. With all my newly found time, I lived online, inhaling the fire hose of panic that also felt strangely ambient. In my newsfeed, I began to notice a troubling increase of anti-Asian incidents, which in the beginning was happening mostly abroad: A group of teenagers attacked a young Singaporean man in London, punching and kicking him while shouting about the coronavirus; an Italian bank denied service to a Chinese woman. Then in Texas, a man stabbed and cut a Burmese-American family, including two young children, in an attack that the F.B.I. has called a hate crime.
I started bookmarking tweets and news reports of racist incidents. A sample:
An Asian woman pressed an elevator button with her elbow. A man in the elevator asked, “Oh, coronavirus?” She said, “Don’t have it, but trying to be prepared.” As he was leaving the elevator, he said, “Don’t bring that Chink virus here.”
An Asian woman walked into a park and a group of mothers screamed for their kids to get away from her.
A middle-aged Asian woman wearing a mask was going for a walk when a woman screamed at her to get away from her.
A man spat on an Asian man waiting for the subway.
A man spat on an Asian woman walking to her gym.
A woman refused a coffee from a barista because she thought the barista was Chinese. When the Asian man behind her started telling her how irrational that request was, she snarled, “Are you Chinese?” He retorted, “No, but your ugly-ass knockoff purse is.”
I never would have thought that the word “Chink” would have a resurgence in 2020. The word was supposed to be as outdated as those sinister little Chinamen saltshakers I saw in thrift shops. It still thrived among bottom feeders on the internet, but I hadn’t heard it directed at me since I was in my 20s. But now I was encountering that word every time I read about an anti-Asian incident or hearing about its use from friends. I couldn’t process the fact that Americans were hurling that slur at us so openly and with such raw hate. In the past, I had a habit of minimizing anti-Asian racism because it had been drilled into me early on that racism against Asians didn’t exist. Anytime that I raised concerns about a racial comment, I was told that it wasn’t racial. Anytime I brought up an anti-Asian incident, a white person interjected that it was a distraction from the more important issue (and there was always a more important issue). I’ve been conditioned to think my second-class citizenry was low on the scale of oppression and therefore not worth bringing up even though every single Asian-American I know has stories of being emasculated, fetishized, humiliated, underpaid, fired or demoted because of our racial identities.
To be Asian in America during the time of coronavirus is to feel very alone. You might think that everyone’s alone during the pandemic. But it’s a different form of isolation carved out by that insidious model-minority myth, with its implication that as long as you worked hard and didn’t ask for handouts, racial inequities could be overcome. Asian-Americans like Andrew Yang double down on the myth. In his recent Washington Post op-ed, he urged Asians to be more American: “Step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red, white and blue.” After 9/11, South Asian cabdrivers beribboned their cars with American flags, which did nothing to curb the Islamophobia. “During World War II, Japanese-Americans volunteered for military duty,” Yang wrote, “to demonstrate that they were Americans.” Japanese-American soldiers did enlist, helping free more than 30,000 survivors in Dachau, but their heroic acts abroad failed to liberate some of their own families from internment camps in this nation.
The coronavirus at least burned away any illusions that East Asians are almost white. Since the first cases were discovered in the U.S., I kept imagining the coronavirus as an irradiating purple light lancing through the cracks of our white-supremacist world. Some of us never noticed these cracks before, but now it is all that we can see. African-Americans and Latinos are dying in higher proportions than anyone else in New York City, perhaps because of their lack of access to health care and because many of them are essential workers and can’t shelter at home. But systemic racism keeps minorities separated. White supremacy ensures that once the pressure of persecution is lifted even a little from one group, that group will then fall upon the newly targeted group out of relief and out of a frustrated misplaced rage that can never touch, let alone topple, the real enemy.
The hate hasn’t abated since Americans have been ordered to stay indoors. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council said the reporting site was still receiving about 80 incidents a day, and there have been 1,600 since March 19. Because of the shelter-in-place rules, working-class Asians who are employed in essential businesses, like grocers, are not only at higher risk of being exposed to the virus but face the brunt of anti-Asian harassment. Yuh-Line Niou, a New York State assemblywoman who represents Chinatown and other areas in Lower Manhattan, said an Asian-American friend delivered food to a customer who spat right into his eye. Another friend, a nurse, was called a “dirty Chink” by her patient, who had Covid-19. “And these are the people who don’t report,” Niou said. “They’re scared of losing their jobs.”
Then on April 5, an assailant tossed what’s believed to be acid on a 39-year-old Asian woman in Brooklyn while she was taking out the trash, severely burning her head, neck and back. I am enraged. I am scared. In addition to fears of catching the virus or of being unemployed or of loved ones dying, we now have to worry about having acid thrown at us? It is happening everywhere. It is happening too close to home. It’s happening at home. One Asian-American family returned to their house in Minnesota and found a sign posted at their door: “We’re watching you,” the note said. “Take the Chinese virus back to China. We don’t want you here infecting us with your diseases.” It was signed, “Your friendly neighborhood.”
This selection has been abridged for length. The full essay is available online at The New York Times Magazine: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/12/magazine/asian-american-discrimination-coronavirus.html
Rounding out this category with an example of a high-profile op-ed, we present a piece by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His commentary on the protests that swept the nation following the killing of George Floyd was published in the Los Angeles Times.
Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
What was your first reaction when you saw the video of the white cop kneeling on George Floyd’s neck while Floyd croaked, “I can’t breathe”?
If you’re white, you probably muttered a horrified, “Oh, my God” while shaking your head at the cruel injustice. If you’re black, you probably leapt to your feet, cursed, maybe threw something (certainly wanted to throw something), while shouting, “Not @#$%! again!” Then you remember the two white vigilantes accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged through their neighborhood in February, and how if it wasn’t for that video emerging a few weeks ago, they would have gotten away with it. And how those Minneapolis cops claimed Floyd was resisting arrest but a store’s video showed he wasn’t. And how the cop on Floyd’s neck wasn’t an enraged redneck stereotype, but a sworn officer who looked calm and entitled and devoid of pity: the banality of evil incarnate.
Maybe you also are thinking about the Karen in Central Park who called 911 claiming the black man who asked her to put a leash on her dog was threatening her. Or the black Yale University grad student napping in the common room of her dorm who was reported by a white student. Because you realize it’s not just a supposed “black criminal” who is targeted, it’s the whole spectrum of black faces from Yonkers to Yale.
You start to wonder if it should be all black people who wear body cams, not the cops.
What do you see when you see angry black protesters amassing outside police stations with raised fists? If you’re white, you may be thinking, “They certainly aren’t social distancing.” Then you notice the black faces looting Target and you think, “Well, that just hurts their cause.” Then you see the police station on fire and you wag a finger saying, “That’s putting the cause backward.”
You’re not wrong — but you’re not right, either. The black community is used to the institutional racism inherent in education, the justice system and jobs. And even though we do all the conventional things to raise public and political awareness — write articulate and insightful pieces in the Atlantic, explain the continued devastation on CNN, support candidates who promise change — the needle hardly budges.
But COVID-19 has been slamming the consequences of all that home as we die at a significantly higher rate than whites, are the first to lose our jobs, and watch helplessly as Republicans try to keep us from voting. Just as the slimy underbelly of institutional racism is being exposed, it feels like hunting season is open on blacks. If there was any doubt, President Trump’s recent tweets confirm the national zeitgeist as he calls protesters “thugs” and looters fair game to be shot.
Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.
So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.
What you should see when you see black protesters in the age of Trump and coronavirus is people pushed to the edge, not because they want bars and nail salons open, but because they want to live. To breathe.
Worst of all, is that we are expected to justify our outraged behavior every time the cauldron bubbles over. Almost 70 years ago, Langston Hughes asked in his poem “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred? /… Maybe it sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?”
Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye sang in “Inner City Blues”: “Make me wanna holler / The way they do my life.” And today, despite the impassioned speeches of well-meaning leaders, white and black, they want to silence our voice, steal our breath.
So what you see when you see black protesters depends on whether you’re living in that burning building or watching it on TV with a bowl of corn chips in your lap waiting for “NCIS” to start.
What I want to see is not a rush to judgment, but a rush to justice.
Prior to the electronic age, letters were the primary way that people stayed in touch with family and friends. For this option, you should write a letter to a family member, a friend, a politician, your school, or your future self. Imagine that your letter is the only means the recipient has to understand the spring and summer of 2020 from your perspective.
In a letter to her friend at the Haskell Indian Nations University, a nurse named Lutiant describes her experience in Washington D.C. during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
The rest of the letter is mordantly funny and certainly worth a read. It is part of the National Archives online exhibit “The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918.” https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/records/volunteer-nurse-letter.pdf
Also from the National Archives, Jackie Robinson’s letter to President Eisenhower in 1958 criticizes the president for his tepid stance on desegregation and represents a succinct call to action from an icon of the civil rights movement.
Additional context can be found on the National Archives website: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/jackie-robinson
Whether you are an experienced poet or a curious novice interested in trying something new, consider exploring your experience through verse. One of the oldest forms of written expression and one of the most flexible, poetry is a uniquely varied artform. You should choose a style that you find interesting or comfortable. If you decide to write short-form poetry (e.g. haiku), please plan to submit a collection of poems in lieu of one longer poem.
Ross Gay’s poem “A Small Needful Fact” is a poignant elegy for Eric Garner, who was killed in July of 2014 by a police officer who put Garner in a chokehold while arresting him for selling loose cigarettes.
A Small Needful Fact
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
Clint Smith was a senior in high school in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city. In the poem “what is left” from his collection Counting Descent, he “attempt[s] to ask the questions [he] didn’t give himself that space to ask” at the time of the disaster.
Read the rest of Clint Smith’s statement about the poem online at the Poetry Society of America: https://poetrysociety.org/features/in-their-own-words/clint-smith-on-what-is-left
You may also take inspiration and comfort from Lynn Ungar’s “Pandemic,” a poem about the COVID-19 virus that went viral itself.
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
In the last decade, podcasts have exploded in popularity. Instead of relying on visuals, podcasts are audio tracks in which someone discusses a topic, tells a story, conducts an interview, or shares his/her thoughts. You have the option to create your podcast by yourself or with others, and you have flexibility in terms of both the topic you would like to focus on and the feeling you hope to convey. We recommend conducting a brief test recording to ensure appropriate audio quality. If you have any questions or would like additional guidance on creating a polished podcast, please contact Instruction and Outreach Librarian, Emily Ziemba (email@example.com).
The 1619 Project, developed by The New York Times Magazine in 2019 to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virignia, examines the profound and far-reaching legacy of slavery in the United States. In the second episode of the “1619” audio series, host and project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones investigates the role of slavery in the development of the American economy.
Recognizing the debate surrounding the 1619 Project, we encourage students to read the following article in The Atlantic to get a better sense of the arguments and form their own judgments: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/12/historians-clash-1619-project/604093/
We hope that you will enjoy the sense of family connection captured by Ali Jaffe in this next podcast, as she and her grandmother prepare a recipe together over FaceTime and tell stories of cooking during the pandemic and throughout the decades.
If the question-and-answer format of a podcast appeals to you, but you are not interested in the technical task of putting together an audio presentation, then a written interview is another good option. During stay-at-home orders, many people have found time to connect over conversation. Record an interview with a family member or friend using one of the initial prompts as inspiration for your questions. Transcribe a few questions and responses, and write an introduction to the transcript. Discuss why you selected your interviewee and questions and what you learned. What are you now inspired to do because of this conversation?
In the following excerpts from “We Can Endure” by Lydialyle Gibson, you will read the introduction and two questions from her interview with poet and physician Rafael Campo, MD.
Rafael Campo, M.D. ’92, has lived through a plague once before. An internist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, he was a young medical resident in San Francisco during the height of the AIDS epidemic—a searing experience that profoundly shaped the way he practices medicine today. In the exam room, Campo tries hard to shed clinical distance and emotional remove, to build an empathic connection with his patients.
He also brings the arts into his medical work. An award-winning poet, Campo writes evocatively about his experiences as a physician, and often shares poetry by favorite writers with his patients. He encourages other healthcare providers to engage with the arts too—as readers or writers, as artists or appreciators—and leads literary workshops with Harvard Medical School students, believing that the humanities are crucial for fostering empathy and helping clinicians become better caregivers and stave off burnout. Since 2018, Campo has served as poetry editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Last year, I profiled Campo for Harvard Magazine, and I thought of him again last month when a close friend in Chicago had to be hospitalized with COVID-19. Thankfully, my friend recovered, though it was an awful experience. Recounting the ordeal afterward on the phone, he told me how anxious and lonely he’d felt, separated from loved ones who could not visit him. And he talked about the doctors and nurses who’d cared for him—how attentive and compassionate and professional they’d been, but also how the contagion had kept them at a distance, which they regretted as much as he did. They spent as little time as possible at his bedside, he said, and they would sometimes call on the phone outside his room instead of coming in to check on his condition. My friend said he could see that they struggled with this disconnect, that it pained them not to be able to give the kind of close care they were used to providing.
So, this week I asked Campo to talk a bit about this idea, and about his own experiences as a doctor and caregiver amid this pandemic, whether there were parallels for him to the AIDS crisis, and what ways he was finding to stay connected and whole during this extraordinary period of isolation and stress for clinicians, patients, and ordinary people alike.
First, how are you?
I'm hanging in there. It's a really difficult time, but we are doing the best we can. With all the restrictions on folks coming into the hospital, trying to protect everyone from exposure to the virus, we're limited in how we can care for people. And I find that I really miss that human connection. Phone calls and FaceTime and trying to manage care remotely is just a different experience. And it’s of course a real problem especially for folks who are facing end of life, and how do we get family members and loved ones together? It's just awful. I mean, it runs contrary to all we naturally want to do in those moments when it's so important for people to be together and be present for one another.
So much of your work, in both poetry and medicine, is about human connection and sustenance through art. How are you thinking about those things now, given the limits imposed by this contagion?
You know, during the HIV crisis, people came together to tell their stories, and to make their voices heard. It was a different dynamic, because of the stigma and prejudice against groups who were most affected by that illness. But the activism was also hopeful and inspiring.
It’s critically important for us to find ways to stay connected through this crisis. As awful as it was during the HIV crisis, we could still come together. This new virus really prevents that. We can’t gather in community. It’s very painful. And so, I think it's all the more important that we go to those books that we love, and go in virtual settings to paintings and music and other works of art that provide a larger human context to help us make sense of what's happening.
I have certainly been turning to some of the poetry and other literary work from the AIDS crisis. It provides a kind of guidepost, a reassurance that we've been through this before, and that we can make it through again. We can endure. That message from the arts and the humanities is so necessary now, especially again, when we feel cut off from our usual sources of empathetic mirroring. If we can't be with loved ones, we can still be with other people through words, through music, through digital access to artwork.
You can find the full article, which features the edited and condensed interview, at Harvard Magazine: https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2020/04/poet-and-physician-rafael-campo-on-connection-and-empathy-in-caregiving-during-the-pandemic
Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter, interviewed civil rights activist and organizer DeRay Mckesson for Interview Magazine in 2016. Again, we have excerpted the introduction to the interview as well as two questions.
In August 2014, DeRay Mckesson started sprinkling into all of our time lines with messages of peace and progress and perseverance. On the ground in Ferguson, Missouri, shoulder to shoulder with the protestors and conscientious citizens facing down the police force in the wake of the death of Michael Brown, Mckesson was among the best fonts of information in real time about what was going down, what was happening next. On Twitter, he spoke with a clarity and urgency that could not be ignored. But it was his astounding patience and grace and poise in the chaos that—along with his signature quilted, blue Patagonia puffer vest—turned him into the charismatic frontman of a gathering coalition of organizations often associated with Black Lives Matter. Not just an aggregator or even reporter, Mckesson’s peppy resolve (“We will win.”), and his regular bits of inspiration (“I love my blackness. And yours”) in the year and a half since, have made him the voice of “the movement,” as he calls it.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Mckesson, now 30, studied government and legal studies at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he was student-body president. He would go on to work as a teacher and school administrator until the movement called him out of the school halls and into the streets. And in April 2015, Mckesson returned to his hometown, helping to bring comfort and direction to a city in total disarray following the death, after an injury sustained while in police custody, of Freddie Gray—receiving, for his work there and elsewhere, several accolades, including Teach for America’s Peter Jennings Award and the Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award. And he doesn’t seem too keen to take up stakes again. Days after we photographed him for this issue, Mckesson announced his candidacy for the mayoral election in Baltimore, and just a few weeks ahead of the crucial Democratic primary in that race, Mckesson got on the phone with his pal Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter, to talk about what’s to be done next, about the power of tech, and making one another feel a little bit less alone.
JACK DORSEY: Okay, DeRay. I just want to start with a very simple question, which is: Why? Why are you doing what you’re doing?
DeRAY MCKESSON: You know, so much of it was about telling the truth in public. I had under 900 followers when I first went to St. Louis. And I, like so many other people, was pushing back against the police department that killed Mike Brown. And social media allowed us to tell the world about what was happening. The why in terms of protest was to put these things into the public space that had not been there before, with a goal of pushing systems and structures to change. And then, in Baltimore, I realized that we had the opportunity to actually change people’s lives in ways that have an impact today, tomorrow, and the day after. I can do that work from the inside, too.
DORSEY: I think there’s been a critique in the past around online activism versus on-the-street activism. But what have you found that really gets people to act, whether that be online action or on the street?
MCKESSON: I think initially the videos—people seeing it so viscerally—got them to act. It is actually really simple. People knowing that they’re not alone is a big motivator. Social media helps people see that there are likeminded people close to them, and all across the country, who are ready and willing to challenge systems and structures. So they feel like they can come out and say it in the street because they know other people are there, too, that other people believe in this with them. And if they don’t have other people with them immediately, they know that they have a mechanism to invite other people to join. These issues were issues way before August of 2014, obviously. What changed is that we have tools that help us to build a community differently.
The full interview can be found online at Interview: https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/deray-mckesson
Music is a way for people to express themselves, share their feelings, and tell their stories. It can be an escape or a way to navigate life. If you are drawn to music as a form of self-expression, you can choose to write your own lyrics and create an original song that captures your experience in 2020. You should plan to submit a written copy of your lyrics and, optionally, a video or audio recording.
Benjamin Gibbard’s melancholy song “Life in Quarantine” was written during and about the current pandemic.
Life in Quarantine
By Benjamin Gibbard
The sidewalks are empty
The bars and cafes too
The streetlights only changing
'Cause they ain't got nothing better to do
You say it's like Christmas when nobody's around
When our city was still a secret
Before those carpetbaggers came to town
And the airports and train stations
Are full of desperate people
Trying to convince the gate agents
That not all emergencies are equal
But no one is going anywhere soon
Inside the Safeway
It's like the Eastern Bloc
People have a way of getting crazy
When they think they'll be dead in a month
But you like the silence of the wind through the trees
And I like walking beside you
Through these days of no guarantees
And National Guard is on their way
To protect us from our neighbors
And everyone who's tried to swim for it
Has drowned out past the breakers
And the airports and train stations
Are full of desperate people
But no one is going anywhere soon
No one is going anywhere soon
Kendrick Lamar, the first artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music who wasn’t a jazz or classical composer, has had an important voice in the national conversation about race and racism in America. In his provocative performance at the 2016 Grammys, Lamar includes verses from some of his best-known songs, including “Alright,” which became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. The final freestyle verse alludes to the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.
You should watch the performance, a visual statement as well as a musical one, at the following link: https://www.theverge.com/2016/2/15/11004624/grammys-2016-watch-kendrick-lamar-perform-alright-the-blacker-the-berry
And you can explore the lyrics here: https://genius.com/Kendrick-lamar-grammy-2016-performance-lyrics
You also have the option of taking an existing song and writing new lyrics, either because you wish to create a thoughtful satire/parody or because you see an interesting interplay between the original song and your chosen topic. Consider Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage,” a bleak and biting reimagining of Roger and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.”
By Lauryn Hill
Black Rage is founded on two-thirds a person
Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens
Black human packages tied up in strings
Black rage can come from all these kinds of things
Black rage is founded on blatant denial
Squeezed economics, subsistence survival
Deafening silence and social control
Black rage is founded on wounds in the soul
When the dogs bit
When the beatings
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember all these kinds of things and then I don't fear so bad
Black rage is founded: who fed us self hatred
Lies and abuse, while we waited and waited
Spiritual treason, this grid and its cages
Black rage is founded on these kind of things
Black rage is founded on draining and draining
Threatening your freedom to stop your complaining
Poisoning your water while they say it’s raining
Then call you mad for complaining, complaining
Old time bureaucracy drugging the youth
Black rage is founded on blacking the truth
Murder and crime, compromise and distortion
Sacrifice, sacrifice who makes this fortune?
Greed, falsely called progress
Such human contortion,
Black rage is founded on these kinds of things
So when the dogs bit
When the beatings
And when I'm feeling sad
I simply remember all these kinds of things and then I don't fear so bad
Free enterprise, is it myth or illusion?
Forcing you back into purposed confusion
Black human trafficking or blood transfusion?
Black rage is founded on these kinds of things
Victims of violence both psyche and body
Life out of context is living ungodly
Greed falsely called wealth
Black rage is founded on denial of self
When the dogs bit
When the beatings
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember all these kinds of things and then I don't fear so bad
We invite our artistically inclined students and community members to contribute artwork along with a reflective artist statement. We are open to the use of any visual medium—painting, drawing, photography, ceramics, sculpture, video, digital art, and more—and we encourage you to think broadly when defining your craft. The artist statement itself is your opportunity to tell your audience about your work, your inspiration, and your process. What can you relay to viewers that would add to their experience of the piece in question? The art department will hold an exhibition of student work in the upcoming school year as part of our community's continued effort towards equity, social justice, and the common good.
Alternatively, if you do not wish to submit your own artwork, but you are interested in or inspired by work related to the themes of this project, you are welcome to write a reflection on pieces created by other artists.
Carrie Mae Weems’s photo essay titled “Scenes and Takes” explores the importance of representation in television and film and responds to the question, “Why does art matter?”
Carrie Mae Weems: A Crack in the Cultural Armor
The artist recounts the genesis of her photo series on the sets and spaces where African Americans changed network television.
By Carrie Mae Weems
Art matters because artists matter.
For years I used to get up early and walk to the corner store to grab my weekend fix: a Sunday edition of The New York Times. (My Sundays today still include The Times, albeit the one on my iPad.) It’s the best newspaper in the nation, and I loved it even during those long stretches when I don’t remember seeing a single story on black or brown artists for weeks on end. There was nothing in the Arts section, nothing in dance, nothing in film, nothing in the Book Review and, astonishingly, very little in music. The lack of representation was stunning.
Then again, that absence wasn’t limited to The New York Times. It was woven into our social fabric and existed across all our cultural landscapes. The entire country, along with its cultural institutions, was behind.
Dumbfounded, disappointed, angry and hurt, one day I sat down and cried. I worked in the shadows, and had been waiting for the coming of a new day.
But then, coupled with our changing demographics, came a sudden shift: Network television was freed up, its narratives ceded to those who historically couldn’t afford cable — the black and the brown. Shows like “Empire,” “How to Get Away with Murder” and “Scandal” emerged, and the game began to change. These shows upended old notions of what was important and what could be seen, positing something that was dynamic and that grappled with the notion of representation in a new way. I was thrilled.
As with much of my work, “Scenes & Takes” grew out of that crack in the cultural armor. I thought it would be important for me to stand in front of, and in, the sets of these shows, to think about what was shifting within the worlds of contemporary expression and popular culture.
We ask that you use the following link to view the photo essay itself, as we are unable to reproduce it on our website: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/opinion/carrie-mae-weems-black-television.html
Harriet Diamond’s sculpture installations exploring the Syrian and Rohingya refugee crises were featured in the Richmond Art Center’s Mercy Gallery this past winter. Her artist statement is shared below.
By Harriet Diamond
I have always been interested in voyages, how they unfold and the stories that lie within the journey. Exiled is a voyage and an anti-war story and a cry for mercy all rolled into one. In Exiled the refugee crisis is depicted in two installations. “Driven From Their Homes” is the story of the ongoing Syrian flight from their homeland. “Arrival: The Rohingya” tells the story of the Rohingya arriving and encamping in Bangladesh after being driven from their homes in Myanmar.
In “Driven From their Homes” a long line of refugees stretches back through the installation. The figures are sculpted as individuals, each with his or her own thoughts and gestures. They are wheeling suitcases and carrying children. Some are near tears, some are chatting, and some are just trudging. The figures become smaller as we move toward the background which amplifies perspective and enlarges the scene.
At the end of the long line of refugees we encounter the Destroyed City. It is made from styrofoam and paint and depicts any number of the bombed out cities in Syria like Aleppo or Homs. From this concrete ruin issue many people. Some are placing the wrapped dead in rows. Some are looking for their loved ones, some are running to escape, some are grieving.
In “Arrival: The Rohingya” we enter a circle of hills covered with tarpaulined shelters and winding paths. We follow the arrival by boat of a group of Rohingya and then encounter them in their daily struggles. They climb the slippery hills carrying their children and their old people, all while living in truly primitive conditions. Yet they maintain a quiet dignity and a sense of order.
When I see what is happening to these victims of war and how they respond, it tells me about what it means to be human. In these devastating scenes I see families and communities sticking together and using all their know-how and resources to survive. I see how they treat one another with care and kindness.
My work is a hybrid of installation sculpture and illusionistic scene making. The wonder of installation sculpture is that it can surround the viewer. I am trying to place the viewer right in the scene, so that we can voyage along with these refugees for a few moments.
The art form that I have ventured into is multifaceted. I am rolling journalism, figuration, painting and sculpture together. More than anything I am interested in accessibility. I’m not trying to hand the viewer a miracle of technique. I am trying to translate urgency and immediacy. I am trying to get the viewer to approach the work--these people and these broken down buildings.
We have all seen these images many times. And I think we are always saying to ourselves…“this cannot be so.” And then saying to ourselves, “But this is so.” The truth is that when we know these things we can never be happy again in the same way that we ever were before. The overwhelming facts make us look, gasp, and then turn away in anguish. But we feel less whole when we turn away. Our hearts pull us back again.
You may want to combine artistic/visual expression and written reflection in a comic strip or short graphic narrative. This genre relies on the interplay of images and words to tell a compelling story; a good comic strip is greater than the sum of its parts. Some of the writers and artists working in this genre are famous for full graphic novels (e.g. Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis). We are looking for something much shorter that still manages to capture a meaningful aspect of your experience during this spring and summer.
Spend some quality time reading and exploring Kristen Radtke’s poignant piece “What Do We Lose When We Stop Touching Each Other?” from The New York Times opinion column Art in Isolation.
What Do We Lose When We Stop Touching Each Other?
By Kristen Radtke
Kris Straub employs exasperated humor and an extended analogy in his webcomic to explain why the claim that “all lives matter” is a flawed response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
And finally, as you wrap up the reading portion of the All-School Read and Write, let Anders Nilsen take you on a short, escapist journey in his comic strip titled “Visualization Exercise: Six Places to Imagine Yourself Where There Is No Concern About the Present Crisis.”