BY SUSANNA ASHTON
In a circle of folding chairs, arranged in a dingy library meeting room, some 32 senior citizens of the Upstate sat around trying to figure out what the heck was going on in James Baldwin’s novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” They were there for a book discussion I was trying to facilitate on behalf of the “Let’s Talk About It” program sponsored by South Carolina Humanities, our statewide bureau trying to foster humanities enrichment. The books for this series had been preselected as part of a group of American life stories rather than chosen by the participants. It shouldn’t have been surprising then that these seniors in rural Oconee County were somewhat unprepared for the raw lyrics of Baldwin’s 1953 work about spiritual and sexual awakening in Harlem.
But, nonetheless, they were game. While many of the audience members complained that they hadn’t been able to finish it, the group spent the next two hours discussing it, deriding it, and occasionally just marveling at the depictions of religious torment and joy that evidently echoed something in their own evangelical pasts.
Slowly, some of them acknowledged that his dream-like prose actually told a richer tale than more predictable language might. “After all,” one lady added when talking about the main character, “I remember my childhood mostly in flashes, too. He’s just trying to sort it out by what it felt like.”
And at that moment in the public library I saw citizens at work thanks to opportunities provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. These citizens weren’t voting, serving on a jury, or picketing injustices. They weren’t reaching out too far beyond their comfort zones. They were just talking about a book.
But they were reaching and, in that, they were pursuing a civic good. They were trying to think hypothetically, trying to imagine something beyond their own experiences.
They had come out at night, in the rain, to weigh in on a book that most of them didn’t like. Not one bit. But liking the book wasn’t the point. They were there because these publicly funded book discussions; ones which I’ve helped run for 18 years, gave them something to do. Something to say. Something to plan for. Something to step up to.
And we, in turn, need to step up to save these types of programs.
In 2016, the South Carolina Humanities’ “Let’s Talk About It” programs were only allocated about $3,000 to serve the entire state. Last year that money went toward loaning used copies of the books for all participants and a small fee to the expert brought in to lead the discussion groups. Most participating libraries try to host about eight talks a year. It doesn’t take a lot of money.
In 2016, the NEH directed $43 million to state agencies for local distribution — agencies such as South Carolina Humanities. These groups then turn around and spend that money in every congressional district, sometimes on big events but often on modest projects such as loaning books to otherwise isolated seniors in Seneca, S.C..
To be clear: Our nation needs hard, big, bold art and humanities work. We need the analytical and outreach work in history, literature and philosophy that the humanities offer, too. We need to fund literary festivals and historical forums.
But we also need the quieter interventions that might not draw huge audiences. We need the kind of humanities that remind the elderly that their confrontations with ideas that confound, agitate or delight them, matter.
It matters because they are learning to process the unfamiliar and to risk sharing their awkward reactions. Their growth reminds us that we need to keep reading and keep searching for ideas we don’t like, words that discomfort, and flawed characters who remind us, just a little bit, of ourselves. This is what makes us more empathetic and thus better citizens.
South Carolina needs citizens who care enough to push themselves, to expand their worlds. The NEH shows them how to do this. And yet, the proposed 2018 Trump budget is “targeting waste” like the NEH. In its current form, the administration has no allocation for the humanities and the civic values it promotes.
Contact Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott and urge them to demand to a national budget that supports the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Susanna Ashton is a professor of English at Clemson University.