A Language for Talking to Each Other

Jane Kamensky. Photo by Webb ChappellJane Kamensky. Photo by Webb Chappell
By Jane Kamensky, Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director; Professor, Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

There has been a good deal of chatter during this long, strange presidential election season about the ways different generations of feminists talk to—and sometimes past—one another. What were Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright thinking with their tone-deaf remarks about the Sanders campaign? my students ask. My colleagues and I scratch our heads: What do young women want? So it was with great anticipation that I entered the Pforzheimer Reading Room in early March to witness a site-specific performance of feminist poetry titled “A Language to Hear Myself.”

What transpired that evening was one of the most significant teaching and learning experiences of my career: an electrifying dramatic spectacle that connected past and present in a way that gave me hope for the future. Sixteen Harvard students, most of them from the College, declaimed poetry, some of it from our astonishing collections and some of it their own creation. Towering works from the past century—verse by Audre Lorde, Honor Moore, Rita Mae Brown, Stevie Smith, and Adrienne Rich—found their echoes and, indeed, their worthy successors, in a chorus of new voices. Genesis de los Santos, Anwar Omeish, Eli Schleicher, Sharlee Taylor, Alyssa Moore, Martine Kinsella Thomas: this may be the first time you have heard their names, but mark their words, it won’t be the last.

“A Language to Hear Myself” was no mere recitation. Responding to research and historical guidance from the Schlesinger’s Amanda Strauss, a research librarian, and Laura Peimer, a manuscript archivist, the student poets framed their work such that their voices spoke into the fast-rushing stream of feminist literary history. In collaboration with the director Sammi Cannold and her colleagues at the American Repertory Theater, they stretched their spatial as well as their literary imaginations, transforming the Reading Room into an enchanted, even sacred, space. The simplest of actions—speaking, reading, walking, kneeling—became instruments of great power. And there was writing, too: frantic, percussive writing that made the tables and walls and even the windows of the room vibrate like a drum. It felt, that evening, as if a bright-burning torch was passed across the chasm of a century.

This issue of the newsletter explores student engagement at the Schlesinger in its many forms, from the crucial work of staffing the Reading Room and the front desk, to the expanding curricular uses of our collections (my sophomore history tutorial, What Is Family History? recently met in the Radcliffe College Room, for example), to the pioneering interdisciplinary scholarship done by the winners of our Carol K. Pforzheimer Student Fellowships for Harvard College researchers, to the campus activism inspired and supported by our materials. It’s my firm conviction as a teacher and as a historian that the library’s work with students is some of the most significant work we do. The documentary record of ages past comes alive in the hands of young people born near the turn of the current century. Young women—and men—just beginning to figure out the tangle of gender, sex, and sexuality and the vexing mysteries of what we euphemistically call “work-life balance” locate themselves and their struggles in the stream of time. And perhaps most important, they talk back to what they discover in the archive, posing new questions that maybe—just maybe—will provoke new and better answers in the years to come.

 

Photos by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerPhotos by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer

Photos by Tony RinaldoPhotos by Tony Rinaldo

 

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