The America Project
A Teaching Method for Collaboration Creativity and Citizenship
Developed by Sekou Sundiata dance & be still arts mapp international productions
ÂŠ 2009 dance & be still arts All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, in any form, without written permission from the publisher. Published in the United States by MAPP International Productions This publication was made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation and The Nathan Cummings Foundation. Written by Kym Ragusa Edited by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani Design: Buscada
Take part in The America Project! To learn how others are using this teaching guide and The America Project method in their communities and to share your experiences, please visit these websites: www.mappinternational.org/america-project www.theamericaproject.tumblr.com The websites also contain information and materials related to the ongoing work of The America Project Working Group, a consortium dedicated to sustaining arts-based and artist-driven public explorations of the meaning of engaged citizenship in the U.S. today.
Table of contents Acknowledgements
5 Introduction The America Project: Performance and teaching method The America Project course at the New School The ongoing life of The America Project teaching method
Tools for Creativity and Collaboration Readings and discussions: Founding documents and framing questions Writing: “Notes toward” & “first person plural” Collaborations with artists and scholars Being in public: Arts and community A four-part process Coursework for the process Related readings
Final Projects The visual arts exhibit The documentary theater project The writing anthology How to hold a citizenship dinner Questions to keep the conversation going...
Making Use of Challenges A pedagogy of challenges, frictions and silences Sekou Sundiata About the contributors finding the 51st (dream) state
This guide to Sekou Sundiata’s America Project teaching methodology is part of the ongoing work of The America Project Working Group, a consortium of individuals who collectively invest their resources in sustaining arts-based and artist-driven public explorations of the meaning of engaged citizenship in the U.S. today. This exploration was conceived of by the late artist and educator Sekou Sundiata as a multi-year process that included teaching at several universities, and that contributed to the development of his multidisciplinary theatrical work, the 51st (dream) state. The Working Group’s commitment to extend this investigation emanates from members’ first-hand experiences with Sundiata’s powerful America Project method. This document was drafted from a number of sources, first from speeches and writings by Sekou Sundiata on civic engagement, the role of artists in education and in communities. More specifically, this document also builds on readers, syllabi and student papers from The America Project course that Sundiata designed for Eugene Lang College, the New School University in New York City. In phone conversations and email exchanges, colleagues Maurine Knighton, Ann Rosenthal, Margaret Cronin and Julie Ellison mined memories, and interpreted experiences of the course to come up with an
exploration of Sundiata’s powerful vision and teaching method. The text on how to hold a citizenship dinner was contributed by a team of University of Michigan students working with Sundiata and Julie Ellison: Brent Fogt, V. Robin Grice, Cornelius Delro Harris, Jesse Kropf, Laura Meili, Molly Raynor, Emily Squires. Also contributing were conversations with and writing by Alanna Bailey, Amanda Morgan, and Dena H. Saleh, students from The America Project class at Eugene Lang College; and my own recollections as writer-in-residence for the course. Maurine and Ann initiated this project and provided its vision, and Julie identified and articulated the “defining ideas and practices” that shaped Sekou’s curriculum and provide a foundation for the narrative. Margaret provided invaluable feedback and support during the process of compiling and organizing this material. Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani brought the critical and objective perspective of an editor and educator to this publication. I am indebted to them for their insight and their guidance. Kym Ragusa
The America Project: Performance and teaching method
The multi-part America Project emerged from the creative work of artist, poet and performer Sekou Sundiata in response to 9/11 and the resurgence of American empire. Sundiata wrote: Those events triggered a running commentary, an unsettling conversation with myself to understand what it means to be an American. I knew right away that the world had changed in ways that would challenge much of how I understood my life and work up to that point. But this is the only thing I could claim to know, and this more by instinct than by reason. (Disintegrating General Public, pp. 79-80) In 2001, Sundiata began using a “research-to-performance” method to explore these unsettling conversations, asking: What does it mean to be a critically engaged citizen in a time of intensifying U.S. imperial power and influence? This process culminated in the multimedia theatrical performance, the 51st (dream) state, which premiered in 2006. During those five years, Sundiata worked with community groups, arts organizations, and universities to create conversations between people of different racial, ethnic, gender, class, regional, and religious backgrounds about their understandings of what it meant to be an American. These discussions addressed what connected people across lines of difference, as well as what kept them from a sense of common identity and purpose. This work included residencies at academic institutions including the University of Michigan, Lafayette College and Stanford University; small-scale civic gatherings such as community sings and citizenship dinners in homes, churches, and bookstores; and larger public performances, including “Checkpoint: A Concert of Poets” at the Arab American National Museum. What Sundiata discovered during the research, creation, rehearsal, and public discussion of 6
the 51st (dream) state led him to envision an undergraduate course intimately connected to the performance. Sundiata taught and created The America Project course as a yearlong seminar (2006-2007) at Eugene Lang College, the New School University in New York City. It was a course that could be seen as the culmination of Sundiata’s two decades of teaching poetry and writing at the College. Engaging students with world events through his ongoing exploration of the intersection between the academy, arts, and community, Sundiata was able to combine different subjects and genres—social change, race, history; poetry, music, theater; the spoken and the written word. The class enabled him to combine his roles as teacher, writer, performer, and mentor. It allowed him to bring his active art-making process into the classroom. As a performer and poet, Sundiata’s pedagogical methods were grounded in improvisation and collaboration and were responsive to what was happening in the nation and the world, as well as the classroom. For many years he had been working at what he called “the intersections of Art, Imagination, Humanities, and Public Engagement” within the space of the university as a place of intellectual engagement, play, and diversity. Sundiata helped students engage with “real world” concerns in both private and public ways. Students combined thinking and writing, reading and talking, individual reflection and public action, creativity and critical thinking, through group projects and classroom sharing.
The America Project course at the New School
At Eugene Lang College, the New School University, The America Project course placed an emphasis on discussion and the sharing of written work, involving aspects of a seminar, writing workshop, and practicum. The year-long course met twice a week for an hour and a half each session. An excerpt from the course description describes the scope of what Sekou Sundiata imagined: The America Project Class is both a course and an experience that involves students with issues of America’s national and cultural identity, of its power in the world, and of its guiding mythologies. The course will examine how America defines itself in a new era characterized by unprecedented global influence and power. It is also an intellectual and personal quest to uncover a vision of what it means to be both a citizen and an individual in a deeply complex, hyper-kinetic society. Some of the questions of the class are: What does “pursuit of happiness” mean in a society that places so much emphasis on tangible outcomes for most endeavors? How do religion and faith shape American identity and conduct? What are the prospects for love, compassion, and human solidarity? Is there a critically useful way to claim citizenship? How do Race and Difference always matter in America? (Syllabus, Fall 2006) The seminar aspect of the course was a space for critical reading and discussion of selected texts, viewing films, listening to recorded music and poetry, and attending lectures by invited guests. Connected to the “real world,” these seminars responded to, and drew on, events unfolding at Eugene Lang College, in New York City, in Washington, D.C., in New Orleans, in Iraq, and beyond.
The writing workshops focused on the presentation, support, critique, and revision of original personal essays, works of creative non-fiction, and short written responses to help students build a portfolio of written work. The practicum involved engagements with artists and scholars as collaborators and an immersion in documenting, producing, and attending some of the events and community activities that were part of the roll-out of a major theater work. This included two class retreats and viewings of several performances: the 51st (dream) state at Brooklyn Academy of Music, WeDaPeoples Cabaret at Eugene Lang College and Harlem Stage, and the Day of Art and Ideas at Harlem Stage. Students drew on these professionally-produced experiences to design and implement their own collaborative group projects that were presented as culminating events at the end of the course. These final artistic projects were “visible, public manifestations of the process” of intellectual growth that happened over the year. The students were mostly juniors and seniors, primarily African American and white, from working class, middle class, and elite backgrounds. They came from a variety of disciplines/majors: Visual Arts, Literature, Political Science, Creative Writing, and Education. Many considered themselves politically aware and active; a number had been engaged in various forms of community and university activism before they took the class. Many students remained for both semesters, although some registered only for the first. The work and presence of all students from both semesters was represented in the final class projects, particularly in the writing anthology, Disintegrating General Public.
The ongoing life of The America Project teaching method
Sekou Sundiata passed away in 2007, shortly after the end of The America Project course and before there was a chance to assess its full impact. He had planned to teach the course again, building on, and learning from, that first experience. Working improvisationally in the classroom, Sundiata used his syllabus as a guide that could morph if other events became relevant, and brought in guest scholars and artists who offered their own perspectives on the course material. This guide to The America Project teaching method is designed in the same spirit of improvisation and creative collaboration. Sundiata’s performance, teaching, writing, and activism grew out of a commitment to engagement across lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and age, and across the boundaries between the academy and the community. In this spirit, The America Project methodology may be used in a variety of ways by university instructors, teaching artists, and in partnerships between universities and community and arts organizations. It includes tools for creating an improvisational and collaborative classroom, provides inspiration for creative work in the public realm, and provides models for connecting students to communities outside the university in ways that help foster dialogue and civic engagement. Working with The America Project, we have found that the most revelatory moments occur when teachers and students take risks, learn in community, and respond together to events as they unfold in the world around them. We hope that you will take on the challenge of keeping this method alive by reinterpreting it for your own context.
Central tenets of the methodology • The study of a large idea • Collaboration across departments and beyond the university • An intersection of art, humanities, public engagement and action • Student work paralleling an artist’s own creative process • Artistic public manifestations of students’ own learning experiences
Tools for Creativity and Collaboration The tools used in The America Project teaching method flow around a core of central ideas: reading and discussion of “founding documents” and “framing questions”; writing “notes toward” and addressing the “first person plural”; collaboration; and producing for the public.
Readings and discussions: Founding documents and framing questions
Sekou Sundiata’s engagement with what he called “critical citizenship” emerged from his work as an artist and activist, and from his close reading of relevant texts, many of which he wove into his teaching. This selection of texts was built around a core of creative non-fiction and personal essays and included a diverse range of styles and genres, from essays to excerpts, articles to op-ed pieces. In Sundiata’s class, the goal of the readings was to understand how their thematic and literary concerns could create knowledge about the place and meaning of America in private and public life. The class read and discussed two to three essays per week, including work by Terry Tempest Williams, Harry Boyte, Jacob Needleman, Elaine Scarry, Michael Ignatieff, Cornel West, Jane Lazarre, Rebecca Solnit, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Joseph Epstein, Darrell M. West, Saskia Sassen, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, Richard Rodriguez, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Sekou Sundiata. In addition, Sundiata assigned relevant pieces from The New York Times, current affairs publications, and web sites as they appeared (see “Related readings.”)
Founding documents Primary among readings in Sundiata’s class were the “founding documents” of the nation: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Sundiata and scholars David Scobey and Sam Haselby gave lectures or led workshops on these documents, working with students to interpret them, and discussing them in light of their own experience. Jacob Needleman (The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders) gave a lecture on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” presenting his understanding and critique of those concepts and his views on the “American Soul.” Needleman suggested that Americans need to return to the mythic meanings of the country, to gain a sense of connection with the ideals upon which the nation was founded, 10
and to encourage in Americans a renewed civic empowerment and responsibility. In his own “research-to-performance” work, Sundiata asked whether one could embrace, or reclaim, the ideas of liberty, democracy, and possibility embedded in the founding documents while critiquing the misinterpretation and misuse of those ideas. He challenged his students to do the same; in their own writing, students grappled with the meanings of phrases such as “the pursuit of happiness” and “we the people.” Sundiata explained in a keynote address he gave to the Theatre Communications Group National Conference in 2005: “I found that many people were also trying…to reinterpret the meaning of America. In fact, I’ve come to see this constant re-visioning and re-defining as a driving force in the creative process of democracy, a process that’s not maintained in a fixed and settled consensus, but one that has been historically powered forward by argumentation, dissent, protest and bold imagination. I’m talking about this need to perpetually calibrate the meaning of America as something that’s deep in the cultural and mythic DNA, that probably has its origins in revolution, in the American Revolution. So this struggle to re-vision and re-define is not new. What is new is the context in which we are wrestling with these ideas. The stakes and how high they are, that’s what’s new.”
Students also engaged with the work of scholar and activist Harry Boyte of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in Minnesota. Boyte (Everyday Politics) advocates civic action as a form of problem-solving through building coalitions based on common interests that cross lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, religion, and culture, and which encourage individuals to become actors in public life. Sundiata spent a number of class sessions discussing the work of Boyte and Needleman; the students’ engagement with these texts was evident in their individual papers and collaborative projects, all of which were attempts to combine imagination (Needleman) with action (Boyte).
For example, a question such as “what is democracy?” might lead to a discussion of how we might form what Sundiata described, in his keynote address to the Diversity Revisited conference, as “a humane social practice that elevates and promotes the best in individuals because it requires each of us to see and accept the Other as both different from us and the same as us at a fundamental level.” In a class using The America Project method, students’ own framing questions—connected to citizenship, civic engagement, and identity—structure their final papers. Students in Sundiata’s class, for example, wrote about topics including: activism, economic disparity, war, sexuality, transnational identity, and consumer culture.
Framing questions “As a teacher and an artist, I recognize the value of a good question. And I knew that I had a good question when it led to other questions about American identity, and when it implicated me on a personal level. What does it mean to be a citizen of the empire? Empire – can I say that I am in it but not of it? Can the old myths of beauty and power and destiny sustain a nation? Is national identity necessary in a global culture? What are the prospects for love, compassion and human solidarity? What kind of God do Americans imagine? What kind of God do Americans need?” –Sekou Sundiata, Keynote address, Theatre Communications Group National Conference, June 2005 The America Project methodology also grapples with what Sundiata called “framing questions”: central questions that become starting points for a larger investigation. This process leads students away from the specifics of the news cycle toward a deeper discussion of abstract ideas. These framing questions also serve to direct student writing. 11
Writing: “Notes toward” & “first person plural”
Using The America Project method, students explore different acts of writing (personal essays, in-class exercises, quick responses to readings and discussions, and formal pieces for public consumption) to engage in individual questioning and community-making. Writing is not something students do for the teacher or for a grade; it is intellectual and creative work requiring commitment, patience and risk-taking.
Informal writing: Notes toward Students keep a notebook of responses to class discussions, guest lectures, performances, class events and events outside the classroom. These “notes toward” are informal writings of a few sentences or a few paragraphs in which students can clarify what is important to them, what makes them wonder, question, or get angry. They provide a record of thinking, reading and plans for writing, and constitute a collection of “notes toward” more formal papers and group projects.
Viewpoint and context: First person plural The “first person plural” refers to selfhood and relationality. The first person is as much “we” as it is “I”; a singular, subjective identity cannot exist or develop agency without a nuanced understanding of how that identity is connected to layers of local and national community. In his course, Sekou Sundiata instructed students to consider their own experience within the larger context of American identity, and to examine their own social position, privilege, and blind spots while also engaging in critiques of racism, sexism, homophobia, corporate capitalism, and imperialism. Using this concept, students can be challenged to write about how they are implicated in global American power and racial and economic inequities within the U.S., or how they benefit from them in ways they might not even notice. 12
Building ongoing work: Developing the portfolio In The America Project method, writings build on each other and are mined for material for formal papers and group projects, mirroring an artist’s own iterative working process. In addition to “notestoward,” assignments might include free writing to start discussion, in-class topic-based writing, response papers, and personal essays written from the premise of the “first person plural.” Students might also conduct, transcribe, and edit individual oral histories to explore course questions through the lens of other individuals’ experiences, echoing Sundiata’s own process of developing the 51st (dream) state. All of this work helps students to develop a final portfolio of formal writings that emerge from their informal work and that reference class readings and discussions. Throughout the class, writings address connections between individual narratives and the broad questions of the course. For example, in Sundiata’s class, students responded to questions implied by the phrase “the place and meaning of America in personal and public life.”
Sharing in public Using this method students share their written work in a number of ways: engaging in small peer workshop groups to exchange feedback; reading aloud from in-class writing assignments during larger writing workshops; and incorporating written work into the publiclypresented group projects. Sharing work is critical in order to support a process of thinking together through personal narrative acts that may be journeys into history and place.
Collaborations with artists and scholars
Collaboration among people from different disciplines is integral to The America Project teaching method, as it was to Sekou Sundiata’s own creative work. Collaboration may take place in the classroom as well as in larger public settings, but each setting allows people to share their experiences, their creative processes, their questions. For Sundiata, collaboration was a way of enacting democracy and considering citizenship, fusing the personal with the collective. The America Project methodology encourages, even relies on, collaboration with guest scholars and artists giving lectures and/or working directly with students. For example, Sundiata’s class collaborators included Julie Ellison, Professor of American Culture, English, and Art and Design at the University of Michigan. Ellison spoke to the class about “the life of the anecdote,” the power of a short, personal story as it is told and retold, linking the individual with the group by illustrating common interests and common humanity. Jane Lazarre (writer and former Eugene Lang College professor) did a three-class workshop on writing about race, encouraging students to think and write critically about whiteness. Cecilia Rubino and Vicky Abrash, theater directors and professors at the New School University, worked with a group of the students over the Spring semester to develop and stage the documentary theater final project. Kym Ragusa held workshops on writing critically from personal experience, and worked with a group of the students on the anthology of student writings, another final project. In addition, students were able to engage with the singers, musicians, designers and director who worked with Sundiata on the 51st (dream) state. This fed into their own creative output, including the various forms of personal writing and the group projects.
Being in public: Arts and community
Sekou Sundiata thought that the democratic crisis we found ourselves in after 9/11 was, in part, a failure of imagination. Believing that we needed to reinvigorate our sense of the nation not just through analysis but through the imagination, he desired to engage the ‘American Dream’ as a “serious proposition” in a spirit of “critical patriotism.” By linking arts and citizenship, Sundiata sought to revitalize the mythic source of American democracy.
Watching and participation The arts, especially performance, poetry, and music, are an integral component of The America Project teaching methodology. Sundiata’s students attended a series of performance projects that he had organized during the year: WeDaPeoples Cabaret at Eugene Lang College and Harlem Stage, The Day of Art and Ideas at Harlem Stage, and the 51st (dream) state at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Sundiata brought ideas from these performances into the classroom. He discussed the process of creating large-scale, collaborative, and multimedia works; showed video excerpts shot for the performances; engaged students in discussion after performances; and invited poets, musicians, singers, and theater directors into the classroom to discuss the collaborative process. At Harlem Stage and at BAM, students were engaged audience members as well as collaborators who were encouraged to take part in question and answer sessions with Sundiata and the other performers. Back in the classroom, the students wrote about their experience of the performances they had seen, sometimes offering critiques and creative feedback.
Creating for the public In The America Project method, small working groups of students develop and create projects for the public, practicing their own forms of collaboration. Giving students access to the professional production process of performances or artworks helps prepare them for producing their own major culminating projects to which this teaching method builds. In Sundiata’s class, students were given considerable freedom during the process of conceiving, planning, organizing, and mounting/ performing their projects. The culminating projects that emerged from Sundiata’s America Project course—the Visual Arts Exhibit; the Documentary Theater project, America is in the Room; the anthology of student writing, Disintegrating General Public: Waking up in the 51st (dream) state; and the Citizenship Dinner—are described in the next section.
The America Project Course at the New School
A four-part process
At the New School, the America Project course placed an emphasis on discussion and the sharing of written work, involving aspects of a seminar, writing workshop, and practicum. The year-long course met twice a week for an hour and a half each session. An excerpt from the course description describes the scope of what he imagined: The America Project Class is both a course and an experience that involves students with issues of America’s national and cultural identity, of its power in the world, and of its guiding mythologies. The course will examine how America defines itself in a new era characterized by unprecedented global influence and power. It is also an intellectual and personal quest to uncover a vision of what it means to be both a citizen and an individual in a deeply complex, hyper-kinetic society. Some of the questions of the class are: What does “pursuit of happiness” mean in a society that places so much emphasis on tangible outcomes for most endeavors? How do religion and faith shape American identity and conduct? What are the prospects for love, compassion, and human solidarity? Is there a critically useful way to claim citizenship? How do Race and Difference always matter in America? (Syllabus, Fall 2006) The seminar aspect of the course was a space for critical reading and discussion of selected texts, viewing films, listening to recorded music and poetry, and attending lectures by invited guests. Connected to the “real world”, these seminars responded to, and drew on, events unfolding at Eugene Lang College, in New York City, in Washington, D.C., in New Orleans, in Iraq, and beyond.
of the events and practices that were part of the research-to-performance design of a major theater work. This included two class retreats and viewings of performances: the 51st (dream) state at Brooklyn Academy of Music, WeDaPeoples Cabaret at Lang, and the Day of Art and Ideas at Harlem Stage. Students drew on these experiences to design and implement their own collaborative group projects that were presented at a culminating event at the end of the class. The students were mostly juniors and seniors, primarily African American and white, from working class, middle class, and elite backgrounds. They came from a variety of disciplines/majors: Visual Arts, Literature, Political Science, Creative Writing, and Education. Many considered themselves politically aware and active; a number had been engaged in various forms of community and university activism before they took the class. Specifically, some students had been engaged in actions directed at the university administration to call for more racial diversity among students and faculty, and more inclusion in decision-making processes on issues such as investment, faculty hiring, and curriculum design. Many students remained for both semesters, although some registered only for the first. The work and presence of all students from both semesters was represented in the final class projects, particularly in the anthology.
The writing workshops focused on the presentation, support, critique, and revision of original personal essays, works of creative non-fiction, and short written responses to help students build a portfolio of written work. The practicum involved intensive engagements with artists and scholars as collaborators and an immersion in documenting, producing, attending some 15
Coursework for the process The multi-part America Project emerged from the creative work of artist, poet and performer Sekou Sundiata in response to 9/11, the resurgence of American empire as well as the physical and social devastation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Sundiata wrote, “Those events triggered a running commentary, an unsettling conversation with myself to understand what it means to be an American. I knew right away that the world had changed in ways that would challenge much of how I understood my life and work up to that point. But this is the only thing I could claim to know, and this more by instinct than by reason.” (Disintegrating General Public, pp. 79-80) In 2002, Sundiata began using a “research-to-performance” method to explore these unsettling conversations, asking: What does it mean to be a critically engaged citizen in a time of intensifying U.S. imperial power and influence? He worked with community groups, arts organizations, and universities to create conversations between people of different racial, ethnic, gender, class, regional, and religious backgrounds about their understandings of what it meant to be an American, in order to learn what connected them across lines of difference, and what kept them from a sense of common identity and purpose. This work included residencies at academic institutions including the University of Michigan and Lafayette College; small-scale civic gatherings such as community sings and citizenship dinners in homes, churches, and bookstores; and larger public performances, including “Checkpoint: A Concert of Poets” at the Arab American National Museum. This process culminated in the multimedia theatrical performance, the 51st (dream) state. What Sundiata discovered during the creation, rehearsal, performance and public discussion of the 51st (dream) state led Sundiata to envision a course intimately connected to the performance. Sundiata taught and created The America Project course as a year-long seminar (2006-2007) at Eugene Lang College, the New School, in New York City. It was a course that could be seen as the culmination of Sundiata’s 16
two decades of teaching poetry and performance at the college. Engaging students with world events through his ongoing exploration of the intersection between the academy, arts and community, this was a course in which Sundiata was able to combine different subjects and genres – social change, race, history; poetry, music, theater; the spoken and the written word. The class enabled him to combine his roles as teacher, writer, performer, advisor, and mentor and allowed him to bring his active art-making process into the classroom. As a performer and poet, Sundiata’s pedagogical methods were grounded in improvisation and collaboration and were responsive to what was happening in the nation and the world, as well as the classroom. For many years he had been working at what he called “the intersections of Art, Imagination, Humanities, and Public Engagement” within the space of the university as a place of intellectual engagement, play, and diversity.” Sundiata brought what he called “real-world” concerns into the academy to combine creative pursuits with critical thinking. He helped students engage with these concerns in both private and public ways, combining thinking and writing, reading and talking, individual reflection and public action through group projects and classroom sharing. The final group projects were a “visible, public manifestation of the process” of the intellectual growth that happened over the year.
Readings, Plays & Performances for Civic Public Dialogue
Foner, Phillip S. We the Other People (University of Illinois Press, 1976)
The Declaration of Independence
Gross, Terry. “Performance Poet Sekou Sundiata” Fresh Air [audio interview] (National Public Radio, March 25, 2005)
Anzaldúa, Gloria “How To Tame a Wild Tongue” in Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Third Edition (Aunt Lute Books, 2007) Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “The Case for Contamination” The New York Times, January 1, 2006. Atlas, Caron and Pam Korza, Eds. Critical Perspectives: Writings on Art and Civic Dialogue (Animating Democracy Initiative, 2005)
Guinier, Lani and Gerald Torres. The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2003) Ignatieff, Michael. “The American Empire; The Burden” New York Times, January 5, 2003.
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son (Beacon 1984, orig 1955)
Kelley, Robin D. G. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon, 2003)
Berlant, Lauren. “Citizenship” in Keywords of American Cultural Studies, Bruce Burgett & Glenn Hendler, Eds. (NYU Press, 2007).
King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in Why We Can’t Wait (Signet Classics, 2000, orig. 1964)
Boyd, Melba Joyce and M. L. Liebler, Eds. Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poetry 2001 (Wayne State University Press, 2001)
Lazarre, Jane. “Act Like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity” (review) American Literature, Vol. 71, No. 3, September 1999, pp. 598-599
Blank, Jessica & Erik Jensen. The Exonerated: A Play. (Faber and Faber, 2003) www.theexonerated.com Boyte, Harry. Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) Boyte, Harry. The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2008) Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) Carton, Evan. “Director’s Column” The Citizen-Scholar (Humanities Institute, University of Texas, Fall 2006) http://humanitiesinstitute. utexas.edu/download/newsletters/Newsletter_Fall06.pdf Douglass, Frederick. “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Lazarre, Jane. Beyond The Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons (Duke University Press, 1996) Lerman, Liz. The Hallelujah Project. (2000-2002) [performance and video recording] www.danceexchange.org Morgan, Amanda, Rossoff, Rebecca, Saleh, Dena H., Weitzer, Robert, Eds. Disintegrating General Public: Waking Up in the 51st (dream) state. An anthology by students of The America Project. (Eugene Lang College, 2007) Myers, Sondra, Ed. The Democracy Reader (International Debate Education Association, 2002) Needleman, Jacob. The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders (Penguin/Tarcher, 2003) 17
Nussbaum, Martha, Ed. For Love of Country?: A New Democracy Forum on the Limits of Patriotism (Beacon, 2002) Obama, Barack, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Three Rivers Press, 1995) Ragusa, Kym. The Skin Between Us: A Memoir of Race, Beauty, and Belonging (W.W. Norton & Co., 2006) Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (Bantam, 1983) Sassen, Saskia. “The repositioning of citizenship and alienage: Emergent subjects and spaces for politics” Globalizations, 2:1 (2005). Scarry, Elaine. “The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons” in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence; Eugene Weiner, Ed. (Continuum, 1998) Scobey, David “Putting the Academy in its Place” Places: Vol. 14: No. 3 (2002) http://repositories.cdlib.org/ced/places/vol14/iss3/Scobey Sundiata, Sekou. “Thinking Out Loud: Democracy, Imagination, and Peeps of Color” A Summary of the Diversity Revisited Conference June 8-9 2004. (The August Wilson Center for African American Art and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, 2004) Sundiata, Sekou. Keynote speech at the Theatre Communications Group National Conference. (2005) http://tcg.org/events/conference/2005/Sundiata.cfm Sundiata, Sekou. The Blue Oneness of Dreams [audio recording] (Mercury/ Polygram Records, 1997) Sundiata, Sekou. longstoryshort [audio recording] (Righteous Babe Records, 2000)
Sundiata, Sekou. The America Project residency, Austin Texas: Community conversation. [video recording] (Courtesy of Evan Carton and the Humanities Institute, University of Texas, 2007) Smith, Anna Deavere. Fires in the Mirror (Anchor, 1993) Smith, Anna Deavere. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (Anchor, 1994) Solnit, Rebecca. “The uses of disaster: Notes on bad weather and good government” Harpers Magazine, October 2005. West, Cornel. Race Matters (Vintage, 2001) West, Cornel. Democracy Matters (Penguin, 2004) Williams, Terry Tempest. “Why I Write” in Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forché & Phillip Gerard, Eds. (Story Press, 2001)
Readings for a Citizenship Dinner “I Am Waiting” Lawrence Ferlinghetti (www.worldofpoetry.org) “First Writing Since” Suheir Hammad (www.teachingforchange.org) “Steps” Naomi Shihab Nye in Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream, Nabeel Abraham & Andrew Shryock, Eds. (Wayne State University Press, 2000) “Prospective Immigrants, Please Note” Adrienne Rich (www.americanpoems.com) “Personal Letter No. 3” Sonia Sanchez (www.poemhunter.com)
Resources for Civic Public Dialogue The America Project: www.mappinternational/america-project The Arts & Democracy Project: www.artsanddemocracy.org Project for Public Spaces: www.pps.org Public Achievement: www.publicachievement.org NPR’s Extraordinary Stories from Ordinary People: www.storycorps.org Work Together for Creative Community Change: www.studycircles.org
Final Projects The America Project course culminated in four major projects: a visual arts exhibition, a documentary theater performance, an anthology of student writing and a citizenship dinner. Each student participated in a working group that developed a project. These were presented at the end of the semester in the â€œDay of Art and Ideas,â€? a series of talks, panels, and performances in a temporary public square that engendered critical conversations about the place and meaning of America in private and public life, and in the world.
The visual arts exhibit
One public outcome of The America Project method can be a student-produced and -curated exhibition comprised of various media that explore students’ intellectual and personal journeys through the class. The process of creating and mounting an exhibition requires students to move between individual and collaborative production, while developing skills of negotiation, fostering accountability, and cultivating shared ownership of a course or series of questions. Exhibition materials can come from students’ creative work (painting, drawing, photography, poetry) or from public images and documents, such as posters advertising performances or protests. Engaging in a curatorial selection process pushes students to negotiate why certain images and words are meaningful to them. The design and mounting of the exhibition fosters collaboration, spatial considerations, and problem-solving. An iterative process of planning, building mockups, and developing visual literacy is crucial to creating an exhibition, and therefore helping students to develop production skills must not be overlooked. In Sekou Sundiata’s course, the Visual Arts Exhibit was conceived as a publicly viewed interpretation of students’ experiences of the course. It consisted of photographs taken by the students throughout the year, flyers and posters for the various public events connected to the course and to the 51st (dream) state, and poems and other texts. Students mounted the show in the Skybridge Gallery, a connecting space regularly used by students, faculty members, maintenance workers, and other members of the university community. People passing by were struck by the bold graphics of the posters, and many stopped to read the accompanying texts from Sundiata’s and students’ writings. Interspersed were photographs, some of which were conceptual images challenging normative/essentialist ideas of sexuality and race (composed by Amanda Morgan), others of which documented performances, rehearsals and other public events, such as student and public anti-war protests. 20
The documentary theater project
Though a complex undertaking, documentary theater can be a powerful way for students to synthesize ideas and present those ideas to a public audience. A theater project can be produced over longer or shorter periods of time, using a variety of materials to write the text. This kind of project can also allow for university/community collaboration, when students and community members share the work of writing, organizing, staging, and performing the piece. It should be noted that the development and rehearsal of a theater project often requires planning and time from students and faculty outside of class meetings. It also requires guidance from an experienced instructor on producing and directing a public performance. In the Eugene Lang College, New School University course, the documentary theater project was closely connected to Sekou Sundiata’s own way of working. A group of students wrote, staged, and acted in a performance piece that reflected on their experience of the class and drew directly from class discussions, writings and notes. The students titled the piece America is in the Room after a phrase of Sundiata’s, referencing students’ personal implications in the problems and privileges of the American nation and idea. The theater project was developed in collaboration with professional theater directors Cecilia Rubino and Vicky Abrash. The text was student-written, based on both student writing portfolios and Sundiata’s lectures, writings, and performances. The dialogue explored a series of classroom events that had been turning points in the course, including clashes around race and gender and the students’ struggle to work through those challenges as a community. The piece was performed at Eugene Lang College at the end of the year for an audience of faculty, students, parents, friends, and performers from Sundiata’s the 51st (dream) state. It was later performed at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania allowing for an inspiring exchange of ideas between students of both universities around issues of identity, writing, and cultural and political activism. 21
The writing anthology
Work for the public can also be a more intimate experience: for example, the production of a written piece, meant to be read by a community beyond the classroom. Drawing on final portfolios from the class, students can develop, edit, design and publish an anthology of writings from the course. Sekou Sundiataâ€™s class published an anthology called Disintegrating General Public: Waking up in the 51st (dream) state, a collection of student poetry and prose collected, edited, and designed by the anthology group. In this small group, much of the work was done individually; one student designed the cover art, one copy-edited the manuscript, one wrote the call for entries and encouraged her fellow students to contribute work for the collection. At the same time, the students worked collaboratively to select the contributions, looking for pieces that represented â€œa true wrestling with the framing questions of the courseâ€?; to develop the themes around which the anthology was organized; and to write an introduction that described their work as writers and citizens. The students organized the anthology into four sections: Home as Country; Self as Outsider; Consumerism as Culture; America as Empire. The anthology group distributed copies of the book and presented the collection at the citizenship dinner, where a number of contributors read from their work. A rich discussion followed, and in this way transformed the private act of writing into public engagement. The publication of the anthology allowed for these collected experiences to be shared and sustained with other publics and students at other universities.
How to hold a citizenship dinner
What is a citizenship dinner?
How to start your own?
The creation of a “citizenship dinner” builds on a series of community events that Sekou Sundiata organized as he developed the 51st (dream) state. Citizenship dinners are public gatherings that combine the intimacy of personal storytelling with community participation in order to generate creative dialogue around ideas of citizenship and belonging. The events are organized around potluck dinners held in private homes or in community spaces. After a shared reading of a poem, participants share their experiences of citizenship, community, freedom, family, and place. Responding to a poem in this way sheds light on people’s different relationships to language, history, and culture. It puts the past and the future in motion. Through personal memory and storytelling, individuals come together to talk, to laugh, to disagree, and to see themselves as connected to each other and empowered to act in public ways, for the public good.
Bring people together for a potluck dinner, and as people finish their food, welcome everyone into the space as equal learners. Below is an example of a welcoming statement—feel free to adapt it to suit the needs of your group.
In his class, Sundiata translated this community forum to an event in the final weeks of The America Project course. The dinner was held at a performance space in Brooklyn on a weekend evening. Students were encouraged to bring family and friends, as well as “home foods,” dishes that connected them to their sense of cultural identity. Students brought homemade babaganouj and pierogi, store bought ital peas and rice and vegan sweets. It was an opportunity for students and faculty to reflect on their experiences of the course, and to take account of the work, struggles, accomplishments and learning that had taken place over the course of the year. The citizenship dinner was also a way for students to share the work they did around issues of citizenship and community with their peers and with their families.
“Welcome to our citizenship dinner. You may be wondering what
we are doing here. The answer is up to us. Our goal tonight is to explore the question of what it means to be a citizen and our personal relationship to that meaning. Poet Sekou Sundiata put it this way: Living in the aftermath of 9/11, I feel an urgent and renewed engagement with what it means to be an American. But that engagement is a troubling one because of a long-standing estrangement between American civic ideals and American civic practice. When it comes to a vision of me as an artist and as an American, I am caught in a blind spot. I don’t think I am alone. I sense there are many Americans in the same spot.... I take it as a civic responsibility to think about these things out loud, in the ritualized forum of theater and public dialogue. This is our public dialogue. We hope to create a space of caring that holds many of our ideas about America. Each of us is a learner and a teacher around this table. We come together to ask questions about what it means to be a citizen—of a community, of a country, of a world. Finding the answers may be impossible tonight, but we can start to discover the right questions.
Eat Welcoming statement
Read poem aloud
Questions to keep the conversation going...
Where to Start?
Are We Getting Stuck?
Read the poem aloud. Invite reactions. Allow silence. After some discussion, switch away from the poem and into the personal. If you get stalled, look at the prompt questions.
• Are we talking a lot about “what makes me mad”? • Are we generalizing our feelings about these issues? • Are we saying “they/them” instead of “I” or “we”? • Are we obsessing over vocabulary and avoiding deeper questions? • Are we all talking? • Are we getting so personal that we are missing the larger issues? • Are we over-intellectualizing?
Prompt Questions • What is your first citizenship memory? • Who are the parents of your American identity? • If every person who called themselves American was in one room, what would they have in common? • How do your other identities interact with your American identity? • When and where are your citizen feelings at their strongest? In a polling booth? At a place of worship? At a desk? In a mall? During the Super Bowl? On a bus?
How to Get Unstuck • Move into the realm of the personal. Start telling your own stories. • Change key words. Perhaps a particular idea does not work for you. • Think about citizenship moments in elementary school. • Invite those who have not spoken into the discussion. • Think aloud. Listen closely. Seek fresh language. • Look at the prompt questions.
In Closing Read the poem aloud again. See if anything has changed. Reflect. Thank everyone for his or her participation.
Thanks Move to personal
Making Use of Challenges As Sekou Sundiata taught it, The America Project course was full of challenges, and projects that interpret this methodology will likely face their own set of challenges. Some challenges are more difficult than others, but all have the potential to contribute to the depth of the conversation and work in which teachers, artists, students, and community members are engaged.
A pedagogy of challenges, frictions and silences
Though every project using this method will have its own challenges, those faced and managed by Sekou Sundiata’s The America Project course may be instructive.
Structure of the course The initial challenge of Sundiata’s course was its format: so many moving parts to manage and keep track of, the need for continuity in student enrollment over both semesters, the reliance on students’ abilities and will to work together to realize the large group projects integral to Sundiata’s vision. In addition, during the first semester course enrollment was full; indeed, on the first day of class there were almost thirty students in the room. The final number dropped to twenty-two the first semester, and there were sixteen students in the second semester. Consequently, the depth of class discussions was greater during the second semester. With fewer students, there was more time to focus on and explore ideas as they came up. In addition, with one challenging and productive semester behind them, the students who returned for the second semester expressed a profound commitment to the work of the course, and, to a certain extent, to each other.
Discussion & friction There was often friction between the students. During many class discussions, students were reluctant to speak, and were mistrustful of each other. During the first writing workshop, many students outright refused to read their work aloud, something that Sundiata and Ragusa required as part of the process of learning from each others’ voices and experiences. Other students were fearful or shy. It took half of one workshop session to encourage one student to break the ice by sharing her work; she began with this statement: “I don’t trust white people.” This ultimately opened up—instead of shutting down—more sharing of work along with a rich discussion, showing 26
that room for silence, and a willingness to address tension, can generate deep engagement in the classroom.
Race & challenges The silences and frictions were not all generative, however. Most of the difficulties students had with each other centered around race, especially around relations (both historical and current) between African Americans and whites. As the class had no Asian American or Native American students, one African American/Latina student who self-identified as black, and a Palestinian American student who often stayed out of these particular discussions, it was difficult to widen the inquiry to include, for example, relationships between different communities of color, or to examine white ethnicities as a way of complicating whiteness, or to discuss class without conflating it with race. In addition, Sundiata intended to focus a good deal of the course on questions of empire and to encourage students to consider their privilege as American citizens, to think about how that might implicate them in issues like the war in Iraq and globalization. He wanted students to understand themselves as critical citizens of both the United States and of the world. Although some students tried, it was difficult for many to break out of a kind of black-white dichotomy, as they genuinely tried to inhabit Sundiata’s notion of the “first person plural.” To shift the emphasis on race as solely a black/white U.S. issue and to encourage more discussion about empire and globalization, a class might include more film screenings dealing with U.S. power on the world stage. One might also include readings on global environmental justice issues and look at protest events and marches in terms of critical citizenship. Inclusion of more readings by writers and theorists from other U.S. communities of color, and from the global South would play a role, and the assumption of U.S. citizenship in
the classroom should be challenged, creating a space for discussion of struggles for that citizenship. Current issues in the news could be addressed, for example: LGBT rights, through a discussion of California’s 2008 Proposition 8 (which sought to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry), or debates on immigration, through a discussion of the proposed U.S./Mexico border fence.
While, or perhaps because, this struggle was emotionally fraught and time-consuming, it became a rich avenue for both action and reflection. Sundiata’s reminder that “America is in the room,” along with the students’ and teachers’ willingness to stay in the room with each other through times of conflict, became a defining feature of this course.
A powerful example of the challenges posed by classroom tensions around race was ultimately incorporated into the coursework of Sundiata’s class. In a draft of his final paper, a white student wrote about his African American friend giving him “permission” to use the N-word when addressing him. This student wrote about his belief that, after some internal struggle, it was okay for him to use that word, that by claiming and re-contextualizing disparaging language, it was possible to weaken that language, to make it lose its ability to wound. The majority of his classmates, both black and white, were deeply uncomfortable with this; many of them were enraged, some of his small-group workshop peers wanted him to remove the story from his paper. He in turn felt that he was being attacked, and became silent and withdrawn. This raised the complex issue of censorship and brought the group back to a consideration of the First Amendment. Sundiata encouraged the group to consider what “freedom of speech” meant to them, and to think about both the historical context of the idea and the contemporary struggles around it. After two volatile class sessions devoted to discussion of the issue, the group agreed to disagree with this student’s view, and to challenge him to think further about the many meanings and consequences of his use of that particular word. Eventually the class considered it a critical incident in the course that needed to be included in both the theater piece and in the anthology. It was important to make that struggle public, and to allow that student a voice. 27
1948-2007 “so metaphorically precise, so exquisitely wordish.” –Amiri Baraka Sekou Sundiata was internationally known as a poet who wrote for print, performance, music and theater; as an educator; and as an artist-activist. He was a Sundance Institute Screenwriting Fellow, a Columbia University Revson Fellow, a Master Artist-in-Residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the first Writer-in-Residence at the New School University, and the recipient of a Lambent Fellowship in the Arts. He was featured in the Bill Moyers PBS series on poetry, The Language of Life, and as part of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on HBO. Sundiata was a professor at Eugene Lang College, the New School University, in New York City. Sundiata wrote and performed in the highly acclaimed music theater works The Circle Unbroken is a Hard Bop; The Mystery of Love, commissioned and produced by Aaron Davis Hall in New York City and the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia; and Udu, produced by 651 ARTS in Brooklyn. blessing the boats, Sundiata’s only solo theater piece, produced by MAPP International Productions, opened in 2002 and toured through 2007 to more than 30 cities across the U.S., in Scotland and Australia. In 2005, Sundiata produced The Gift of Life Concert, an organ donation public awareness event at the Apollo Theater that kicked off a three-week run of blessing the boats, also at the Apollo Theater. These events were produced in partnership with the National Kidney Foundation and the New York Organ Donor Network with support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Sundiata released two major recordings, the GRAMMY-nominated The Blue Oneness of Dreams (Mouth Almighty/Mercury), and its successor, longstoryshort (Righteous Babe Records). Sundiata’s final music/theater production, the 51st (dream) state, which he described as his personal and poetic “State of the American Soul Address,” premiered at Stanford Lively Arts in April 2006. Produced by MAPP International Productions, it was presented by more than a dozen renowned performing arts centers and festivals. Sundiata passed away on July 18, 2007 just before the European premiere of the 51st (dream) state.
About the contributors
Author Kym Ragusa is the author of The Skin Between Us: A Memoir of Race, Beauty and Belonging, published by W.W. Norton and Company in 2006. Her essays have appeared in the anthologies Are Italians White: The Making of Race in America, The Milk of Almonds, and About Face: Women Write What They See When They Look In the Mirror, as well as the journals Leggendaria and TutteStorie. She is the recipient of a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts and an Ida and Daniel Lang Award for Excellence in the Humanities. She has taught Creative Writing and Nonfiction at City College, Queens College, and Eugene Lang College in New York; Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina; MIT in Boston; and at Josai International University in Japan. Her films Passing and Fuori/Outside have been shown on PBS and at festivals throughout North America and Europe. Her video, Demarcations, had its premiere at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Editor Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani works with communities to explore the experience of everyday life through photographic and narrative projects. Her work has appeared in journals including Space and Culture and (dis)Closure, and has been exhibited at institutions including the Center for Architecture New York, MIT, and UC Berkeley. Co-founder of Buscada Projects, she received her PhD in Environmental Psychology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is Visiting Assistant Professor in Urban Studies at Eugene Lang College, the New School University in New York. She is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths College, University of London and curates the Urban Encounters conference on photography and urbanism.
Publisher MAPP International Productions works in close partnership with innovative artists who reside in many parts of the world to create, premiere and tour performing arts projects. We provide resources for challenging artistic voices to be fully heard, and build avenues for engagement by bringing together arts, humanities and public dialogue. This means not only placing live work on the stages of performing arts venues, but also creating opportunities for discussion, learning and civic engagement that encourage understanding and appreciation of different cultures and perspectives. Based in New York City, MAPP International Productions was founded by Ann Rosenthal in 1994, and is co-directed by Rosenthal and Cathy Zimmerman. This Teaching Guide is a project of MAPP International Productions dance & be still arts The America Project Working Group For more information: www.mappinternational.org/america-project Photographs p. 13: ©Ray Llanos; Brent Fogt p. 20: ©Karen Ruggles p. 21: ©Karen Ruggles; Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service p. 28: ©Chris Bennion
finding the 51st (dream) state
One of the things I talk about is to look at the ways in which this work can live in the world. Once the show is over, once I leave town, and once these partnerships or relationships are developed, we can begin...does it make sense to develop other projects and other kinds of connections? –Sekou Sundiata
To learn how others are using The America Project method in their communities and to share your own experiences, we invite you to visit the following websites: www.mappinternational.org/america-project www.theamericaproject.tumblr.com
To further understand how “this work can live in the world,” the related DVD set presents two more ways of exploring Sekou Sundiata’s methodology: a documentary called “finding the 51st (dream) state” and a film of Sundiata’s performance of the 51st (dream) state at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on November 10, 2006.
The websites also contain information and materials related to the ongoing work of The America Project Working Group, a consortium dedicated to sustaining arts-based and artist-driven public explorations of the meaning of engaged citizenship in the U.S. today.
The documentary, finding the 51st (dream) state, weaves together footage from performances, residencies, citizenship dinners, classes and seminars. It is the account of how Sundiata found “a clearing” and “a way to see” in small-scale public gatherings, in classrooms, and on stage. The film of the 51st (dream) state as performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music shows the piece in its entirety, and one can see how the collaborative methods explored in the documentary informed the creation of this major work of theater. We hope that this DVD set can explicate the model for collaboration that we have explored in this guide, and that by using this guide, and watching these films, you will be able to adapt the spirit and practice of Sundiata’s The America Project for your own community.
mapp international productions
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