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How the Humanities Help Us through Crises

We asked a wide range of Washington writers how language, storytelling, literature, philosophy, and poetry can help us during troubled times. Here’s what they said.

  • September 16, 2020
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  • Feature
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  • By Various authors

For this post, we reached out to writers from across our state to understand how the humanities—from literature to philosophy to history and more—can help us, both as individuals and communities, during a crisis. What inspired this series is obvious to anyone alive in the year 2020, yet we gave little guidance beyond the central question.

Then something interesting happened as these essays began to roll in: They took on the feel of a conversation. Even though the speakers couldn’t hear or see each other, a dialog formed. It had all the rhythms of a respectful back-and-forth: from the agreements and disagreements, to the concepts that built off each other, the personal anecdotes and the wide-angle social and political views, the points and counterpoints, the meanderings and the understandings—the result was something like a conversation in the dark.

As you’ll see, this is not merely humanities cheerleading: words of love for the humanities sit alongside sometimes tough criticism. It’s likely your perspective will be challenged at least once. But it’s hard to get any more humanities than that.

David Haldeman, Spark editor

“He was called by the slaves a good overseer.” This sentence, from Frederick Douglass’s 1845 autobiography, is the type of evidence my middle schooler’s textbook takes as proof that not everyone thought slavery was bad.

When my child and I discuss how this can be, I remember a lecture about this sentence on what Douglass did not write. He did not write: “The slaves called him a good overseer.” Such a sentence would imply that whites listened to slaves as humans—unthinkable in both North and South. Instead, argued the professor, Douglass’s sentence as written suggests slaves spoke what listeners desired to hear to create a shielded space for nurturing Black personhood. Slaves duly replied so Black people could declare, as Douglass did after his escape from bondage, that no good exists in a dehumanizing normal.

What did Douglass really mean? In discussing this question, my kid and I move towards another. Sentences with depth are always by design. Writers sweat to make sentences mean what they need to say and what we need to hear. What do I hear? I hear directions on acting in a crisis—forge sentences so we can hear voices we have been told to ignore, including our own. Insist on humanness that, though deemed unimaginable, is.

» Michelle Liu is a professor in the English department at the University of Washington.

Although, in our current diseased landscape, we dwell in tenebrous spaces marked by fear and dread, we embrace hope that this too shall pass. We have been here before. As Native People we recognize the rhythm and tone of survival, and so we gather in spirit around the bright fires of ancestral storytelling circles. We have heard this story many times, voiced through the natural world, and through the traditional stories that recount beginnings and continuances. In the creation stories of the Lenape and Iroquois Peoples, the earth floats in space on the back of a turtle, and as Native writer Thomas King reminds us, “…the world never
leaves the turtle’s back. And the turtle never swims away.”

The humanities sustain. They were there in the drawings of the winter count, and there translating dreams into pictographs to inform the hunt. They were there in the form of baskets for gathering sacred, sustaining foods, and for ensuring that Chush, life-giving water, made it back to the village to quench the thirst of The People. The humanities continue to be an integral part of the much- uttered phrase Since Time Immemorial, carrying the message—We have lived. We live. We continue.

» Winona Wynn (Assiniboine/Sioux Tribe) is a professor at Heritage University. Her areas of specialization are cultural identity and Native American education.

We are quick to name a pandemic a crisis.

It’s a spectrum of losses: grievous to trivial.

Quarantine is nevertheless a gift of time and memory. COVID-19 gave me space to mend rips and reunite buttons. It opened a window where music drifted back in. I rebuilt a music lifeline, from the lullaby my mother invented and sang in Spanish, to inventions of songs for a departed friend, to poems of conversation, and words I retake in a memoir.

We learned not to hug, so we are strong. We learned not to speak in small words, not touching, not drinking from another’s cup. Immunity redirected our emotions.

I was a child worker, born useful, so this time is luxury for me: I’m able to sleep, rest, sit, and tell family stories, write for days, walk and drink when I’m thirsty. None of these luxuries are part of a workday for those whose class toils. Our time is sucked dry by germs injected into us by life circumstances, our families, culture, from birth.

I rediscovered my five senses to bathe in the beauty of flowers. A book opened a ritual of enjoyment, not obligation.

I have mended more than clothes.

» Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs is a professor in the departments of Modern Languages and Women & Gender Studies at Seattle University, and the Patricia Wismer Center for Gender, Justice, & Diversity.

In 1999, I spent a summer selling encyclopedias in Pulaski, Tennessee. I was an English major and bunked with Wil, who studied film. We’d work 14-hour days knocking and giving perfect pitches to escape the Southern heat.

Breakfasts were filled with a variety of moods that would dissipate with food and coffee. “Did you ever watch The Thin Red Line? It’s like poetry,” Wil said. I had. I hated it. Hated the protagonist. Hated its 2.75 hours length. Hated that maybe I wasn’t smart enough to understand it.

Later, I decided maybe the film was like a fine wine—something that needed to be aged, and I was ready to fully appreciate it.

I tried five times and no luck. I gave the copy to Mom. Later on, when I visited her it was on, and I sat down. Five minutes in Mom asked, “Did you know that this part is connected to the Bible? . . . He’s walking in the valley of death.” My heart paused. Mom got it.

Years later, I’m still thinking about it. Thinking about the experiences that we need to have, the distances we need to travel, to be ready to understand.

Now. COVID. Isolation. Police. Relationships. Answers seem elusive. I’m not alone in the search for meaning, truth, or identity. But I have films waiting for me, poetry that has been searching for me; words have been put down on paper with the sole purpose of bringing forth clarity as I reach turning point after turning point in my life. I just have to give them a chance.

» Jesus Sandoval is an educator born and raised in the Yakima Valley.

Whether or not you’ve been actively protesting, it’s likely that you’ve consumed an overwhelming amount of news on the pandemic, racial injustice, climate change, the economy, politics. We can’t avoid these articles and news segments that conveniently place us in boxes.

We’re Black, white, Latinx, Indigenous, conservative, liberal, progressive, protesters, patients, healthcare providers, unemployed, LGBTQ , feminists, and whatever else. Pick your category and the inevitable will happen. You’ll start thinking in that box. Those who don’t think in your special box you’ll label “Other.” This, of course, means you’re “Other” to them.

As we get caught up in the habit of this programming, it is easy to forget who we really are. This is why we need the humanities. Poetry, fiction, and visual and performing arts work to answer who we are as multidimensional humans. The arts and humanities reach into the depths of who we really are to give us new perspectives on our daily challenges.

August Wilson expressed this radical power of the arts when he said: “I believe in the American theatre. I believe in its power to inform about the human condition, its power to heal…its power to uncover the truths we wrestle from uncertain and sometimes unyielding realities.”

» Sharyn Skeeter is the author of the novel Dancing with Langston and a writer, poet, editor, and educator. She was an editor at Essence and the editor in chief at Black Elegance magazine.

The humanities operate on the premise that human beings are hardwired for storytelling and drama, which helps develop empathy, an assumed social good. But I’m wary of our culture’s unquestioned faith in empathy as a theory of social change. Why do we believe so strongly that attempting to feel or imagine others’ suffering is an ethical act? Might triggering empathy be counterproductive in the struggle to end racism?

The prioritization of an empathetic response to encountering injustice has led us to this specific moment: Minoritized people feel compelled to broadcast their private, sacred pain for consumption, in order to be allowed to enter dominant discourse. Videos of Black and Brown death at the hands of police continue to go viral. Allies exhaust themselves trying to squeeze out tears from their family and friends. White guilt abounds at annual diversity trainings, yet institutionalized racism remains robust. Even with well-intentioned applications, our faith in empathy from all sides has led to exploitation, racial essentialism, fatigue.

The issue is that feeling something is not the same as doing something; though, rather unfortunately, both can take up the same amounts of energy. We must be careful not to get lost in our experience of another’s story, and miss what the story being told is for. Instead of being controlled by feelings of guilt and shame about injustice, we can instead be guided by our values in taking both personal and collective action towards ending injustice before it is too late.

» Frances S. Lee is a trans, queer Chinese American writer based in Bremerton. They wrote “Excommunicate Me from The Church of Social Justice,” and edited the anthology Toward an Ethics Of Activism: A Community Investigation of Humility. Frances’s work has appeared in The Seventh Wave, Yes! magazine, and CBC Radio, among other places.

The current crises facing the country—a global pandemic, a distressing lack of national leadership, pervasive racialized police brutality, and heightened precarity for the already marginalized among us—necessitate a reassessment of norms of practice and the values that underlie them, tasks for which philosophy is integral.

Practicing philosophy starts with identifying assumptions—in values, political systems, ways of knowing, logics of practice – and subjecting them to critical evaluation. For example, nationwide protests against racialized police brutality highlight a widely entrenched assumption of white supremacy, and philosophers like Charles Mills have articulated the myriad ways in which Black people have been excluded from the social contract.

Philosophy also has a creative side. Demands for defunding the police demonstrate an aspiration for a radical revisioning of our social systems. Finding viable alternatives calls for an imaginative creation and sharing of ideas across difference, to provide what Audre Lorde calls a “fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.” Philosophy thrives with a diversity of ideas.

Philosophizing is also, importantly, a vital practice for self-care. Rather than stewing in rage, despair, or helplessness in these tumultuous times, philosophical reflection helps us to interrogate our discontents, organize our thinking, and envision alternatives and active responses; it can be a pathway to hope. From young children questioning the meaning of freedom and despair to philosopher-activists exploring the role of anger in anti-racist struggle to philosophers guiding policy making in a nexus of critical crises, philosophy is a fundamental practice for understanding ourselves and creating the world we aspire to inhabit.

» Sara Goering is associate professor of Philosophy and the Program on Ethics, and she currently leads the Ethics Thrust at the University of Washington Center for Neurotechnology. She is also the program director for the UW’s Center for Philosophy of Children.

Some years ago, columnist David Brooks mused on what has long been evident to those of us working in the humanities. The humanities, he said, “are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise.” Their disciplines have become “less about the old notions of truth, beauty, and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class, and gender.”

In “The Cultural Canon,” an essay in Julius Lester’s collection Falling Pieces of the Broken Sky, that fine writer recognized the crucial role played by a humanistic vision in education when he wrote that, “The function of education is not to confirm us in who we are; it is to introduce us to all that we are not.”

“My education,” Lester wrote, “did not confirm me as a Black man; it confirmed me as one who had the same questions as Plato and Aristotle. And my education told me that as a Black person, it was not only right to ask those questions, it was even okay to put forward my own answers and stand them next to Plato and Aristotle.”

Such a humanist education gave Lester an “intense and passionate curiosity” that lasted his entire life. It introduced him to “the terrifying unknown and provided not only the intellectual skills to make known the unknown but the emotional stability to withstand the terror when the unknown cannot be made known.” And such an experience, said Lester, gives us “the self-confidence to go forth and face that mystery that lies at the core of each of us: Who am I?”

» Charles Johnson is professor at the University of Washington and the National Book Award-winning author of Middle Passage, as well as other works of fiction and nonfiction including Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice.

The word ‘crisis’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘decision.’ In our 2020 social, cultural, medical, and economic crises, we have daily decisions to make about our own actions and how they might impact us and others. Most of us may recall earlier crises we have faced; some of us may remember how the
humanities generously moved us in some way during that crisis. Maybe e.e. cummings said it best, “it takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

As a high school drama teacher/play director, I worked for 32 years with adolescents in the middle of that particular crisis— trying to decide who they were, what they wanted, where they’d fit, and what path they’d take. A core part of drama class/play practice required that student actors deeply analyze and take on the mantles of characters very different from themselves, using their minds, voices, and bodies to “be” those characters. This daily work created numerous opportunities for learning: when a studious 15-year-old fully embraced the role of messy, grumpy Odd Couple character Oscar Madison, or when a difficult 17-year-old became Elwood Dowd’s psychiatrist in Harvey, each learned more about themselves and the context of those unlike themselves, and were more prepared to make decisions moving forward to their futures.

In a recent interview, Henry Timms, executive director of New York’s Lincoln Center, spoke about the power of the arts and humanities: “They help us find ourselves. They help us find each other.”

» Kathy Shoop is a former drama teacher in La Conner, and one of the founders of the Skagit River Poetry festival.

“I had closed off large sections of my identity after getting out of the Marines. This was causing major issues including problems with alcohol and anxiety. It was really a tangled mess—one that I was great at hiding from others.”

Many veterans come into the Clemente Veterans Initiative with stories like this. The initiative offers free college humanities courses to veterans struggling with the transition to civilian life. All course materials, childcare, and transportation are provided at no cost to participants. Guided by seasoned professors, participants reflect on their military experience and create new models for community engagement.

Typically meeting for two hours, twice a week for three months, they explore some of our greatest thinkers, writers and artists, and ask the question, “What does it mean to live a good life?” Through Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the tragic stories of Herakles and Ajax, and classical Greek and Roman sculpture, they explore notions of heroism and duty. They recognize themselves in stories of return and reconciliation in the Odyssey and Linda Hogan’s People of the Whale. The most significant impacts reported by students are that they feel less isolated, and find a renewed sense of dignity and purpose.

“There were many eye-opening moments for me in this program, across all disciplines,” said the veteran quoted earlier. “Probably the one thing that connects all of them was that through discussion, I realized that I was not alone in my experience, whether that was during my deployments or coming home. I think the readings for the philosophy and history portions probably struck me the hardest … I had never examined moral injury or philosophy through the lens of my wartime experiences. This program has changed my life.”

» Lela Hilton is the executive director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about war. I cannot imagine a greater crisis than that. One takeaway from preeminent Civil War historian James McPherson is that soldiers almost never die for a nation or ideals. Instead, they die for the person next to them. The comrade-in-arms is more important than any abstract notion. He or she is willing to fight to help protect their buddies. From Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, I grasped the concept of the “Good Death” and how soldiers in their dying moments often cried out
to their mothers. Men with broken bodies on the battlefield used their last breaths to appeal to maternal compassion. From Lord Moran’s observations on courage, I absorbed his straightforward assertion that, “If you know a man in peace, you know him in war.” A generous man will be a generous soldier and likewise a cruel person becomes a cruel soldier. The larger lesson is that society is much as it was. Technology has not sapped us of our humanity. In the end, we need friends, nurturing, and character.

» Ryan W. Booth (Upper Skagit Tribe) is a history professor at WSU Vancouver.

I entered a writing block in March after the stay-at-home order went into effect. Overwhelmed by reports of hate crimes towards Asians and scared of impacts of COVID-19 on my job, I fixated on getting from one day to the next. In the midst of this anxiety, I wrote haiku. For the past 13 years, a group of friends and I have written a daily haiku in April to mark National Poetry Month. This year, the pandemic crept into Amy reflections.

six thousand miles away
from the motherland on tomb sweeping day, I light sticks of incense
practicing her pruning
on dead limbs, the grower knows spring will return again

I was scheduled to debut my new book in April with a series of public events. Still under lockdown orders in June, I launched the book from my backyard cottage. As a way to engage with the racial grief of this historical moment, I asked griot-trained jeli Arsalan Ibrahim to be in creative conversation with me through his practice as a kora player and storyteller. I shared works centering racial injustice, miscarriage, and liberation, and Ibrahim responded with stories reflecting on slavery, loss, and warriorship. Liberation and understanding arise through intimate dialogue with our fellow humans. There is just this practice.

» Shin Yu Pai is a poet, writer, photographer, and editor based in the Pacific Northwest. She is the author of eight books of poetry, including the upcoming book ENSO.

I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.”
—Audre Lorde

In times of multiple crises, when the fires of racism and disease attempt to melt every chamber of my heart away, I allow myself to become an ember (for a time). I acknowledge the burning pain and let it set in like a tattoo and then, I scream, then I write.

History has shown me that the writers, poets, artists, and relentless creatives are what preserve and cultivate the vertebrae of the living. I write. Because the back boned before me, my writing ancestors wrote like their lives depended on it.

When our world is burning bright, orange and out of control, I sit up straight. I write. And writing becomes my candle and my altar, my ground and my sky—my oracle and my legacy. My weapon, my wand, and my peacemaker.

» Anastacia-Reneé is a writer, educator, and artist who served as the Seattle Civic Poet from 2017-2019 and the 2015-2017 Poet-in-Residence at Hugo House. She is a two-time Pushcart nominee and the author of five books.



This article originally appeared in Humanities Washington’s print magazine, Spark. Receive it for free by signing up here.

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