Dr. Catherine John, chair of the Africana Studies Department at the University of Rhode Island, joins Sara to talk about her love of reading and literature, her teaching style, experiences in Jamaica, and more.
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SARA MCNEIL, VOICEOVER: Hello and welcome to episode 9 of Read. Return. Repeat. : A ReadICT Podcast. I'm your host, Sara McNeil of the Wichita Public Library. In today's episode titled Planting Seeds of Change, we will explore category 11, a book recommended by someone you admire, with Dr. Catherine John. Dr. John is the chair of the Africana Studies Department at the University of Rhode Island. She has taught in academia for over two decades with an emphasis in African diaspora literary and cultural studies. In addition to literature, she teaches courses on film and hip-hop culture. She is the recipient of numerous teaching awards, is an established scholar in the field, and has pioneered study abroad programs to the Caribbean. Dr. John, thank you for joining us today and welcome to the show.
DR. CATHERINE JOHN: Thank you so much, Sara, for inviting me. It's an honor.
SARA: Yeah, it's such a nice opportunity to reconnect with you. It's been almost two decades since I've seen you in the flesh.
DR. JOHN: Wow.
SARA: Well, let's go ahead and just get started.
DR. JOHN: Okay.
SARA: Who or what helped you develop your love of reading and literature?
DR. JOHN: Oh, wow. Who or what? Let's see, my love of reading and literature, I think it started because I was a fairly young reader when I was a child. When I was two, my father moved to England, to Birmingham, England -- my parents went to Birmingham, England for my father to get a master's degree in theology I think at the University of Birmingham. And so I was there from... I was two until I was five. So I know that any memories that I have of England at that time, I know I was younger than five. But I went to a nursery school and between the nursery school and my mother helping me at home is when I learned to read. So I actually don't have a memory of learning how to read, right? Because as far as back as I can remember, I knew how to read but it's partly because I learned so young. And then my mom was one of those people who read bedtime stories, right, all the time. I actually was raised on a steady stream of fairy tales for better or for worse.
And so... and so I think it started with my mother reading to me and then me wanting to read some of the books myself, right, and it just took off from there. And I was of a generation way pre-social media, right, when reading was the form, the primary form of entertainment that you had access to as a child other than playing with your toys. And when we moved back to Jamaica, there was television but television was something that not only did everyone not have access to, but television signed on as they said at six in the evening and signed off at 11 at night and there was only one station and so you had to watch whatever was on the channel. And cartoons only came out on Saturday mornings, right? So throughout the week there were... you could count on one hand or two -- definitely two -- the programs that you could watch as a child. So your primary form of entertainment was playing with your friends, playing with your toys, watching the occasional television, and reading so that's not quite what I thought I was gonna say but that's kind of how if you want the literal explanation, my love of reading began.
SARA: Oh yeah. Well, and you know, children today are so used to streaming not only just whatever they want but a whole season. You could just sit down and binge watch a show on Netflix. My daughter -- I have an 11 year old -- and yeah, I tried to explain that concept like, oh, Saturday morning cartoons like get up early so you can watch cartoons. And she's like why? I can watch cartoons whenever I want.
Oh yeah, I guess you're right. I guess you don't have as many barriers or it's just a lot more accessible.
DR. JOHN: Right.
SARA: No, that's wonderful. Did you... when you were in Jamaica, did you see or were you reading fairy tales and things that were reflective of your experience or were those kind of the grim fairy tales that were --
DR. JOHN: Oh no, they were grim, are you kidding? Hans Christian Andersen. I remember The Little Mermaid, the long version was my favorite with the old school one where she doesn't get the prince and she becomes a spirit of the air, a daughter of the air, right, who can eventually inherit a human soul. And I remember my mom said that I had her read that over and over and I remember it was 29 pages, right? I mean so there were other things that I had access to and because I read young, what I do remember was reading pretty advanced things fairly young, right? So my dad when I was between seven and, you know, up to relative teenage years, he subscribed to Time magazine even when we were in Jamaica. So I remember Time, funnily enough. I remember Time magazine and I remember the covers and some of them were pretty graphic like I remember the covers of dead bodies after the war in Cambodia.
SARA: Right, yeah.
DR. JOHN: I remember pictures of Idi Amin after the dramas in Uganda and I would sit and read. You know, and he had a... my father was a minister who actually... there was a church house that we lived in and he had a library which was his office and all of his books were there. You know, so I would read the Time magazine, I would periodically browse some of the books that he had that seemed accessible. There were books that my mother had obviously bought for me. But then I also started to read... you know, Jamaica was a British colony so I started to read a lot of classics early. I remember reading Jane Eyre when I was nine, you know, from cover to cover. And I remember when I was 11 which is... high school started at grade 7 and you were usually 11 if you were "on time" so to speak in grade 7, you were... which is a little bit more advanced in terms of when they started you off than in the U.S. And from seven to 11 was high school, right, and then if you passed the exams at the end of 11th grade you went on to 12th and 13th. But it was called first form. So seventh grade was first form, the beginning of high school. There was no junior high. And I remember in seventh grade one of my classmates saying oh my god, I read this really great book, I have to give it to you. And I was like oh, cool and it was Pride and Prejudice.
SARA: Oh yeah.
DR. JOHN: Pride and Prejudice for fun, right?
SARA: Yeah. That says a lot actually now that you mention that.
DR. JOHN: Right. You know, but again we were a former British colony so a lot of those kinds of texts would have circulated in school and in life but then there was also by the time I came of age a lot of texts that were specific to the Caribbean, you know, and we had reading periods in school so you had a double period which would last for like what, that would probably like an hour and a half where they would bring in these big stacks of books, right? And so they'd have 11 copies of each book. And during the reading period, your job as a student was just to pick a book and read and you would read that book. And then at the end of the period you'd put it back. You didn't get to take it home and then the next time you just make a note of what page you were on and next time reading period happened you would continue and we were in complete silence, right?
DR. JOHN: And so that was... also I, you're forcing me to think about the structure and that happened seventh grade and eighth grade. I remember the reading periods and I remember the books I read. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, 101 Dalmatians. Gosh, what else? There was quite a few. You know, one was called The Cloud with the Silver Lining which was a Caribbean book. But there were yeah, so I remember... and we never discussed them.
DR. JOHN: Yeah.
SARA: Just... just reading for pleasure?
DR. JOHN: Yeah. But they were just trying to I guess instill in us the value of reading, I guess.
SARA: Yeah. Well, you know like you said, I mean you didn't have the alternatives to distract you and so to build a strong reading culture, you know, your educators were trying to get... get you to be invested in that experience. Do you find that like some of your classmates struggled in that type of environment or do you think that most people were successful?
DR. JOHN: This is the thing. Jamaican high school, Jamaican school culture was extremely competitive aggressive and it was a weed out culture. So you had to take an exam called common entrance at the... in the middle near the... the sort of first two-thirds of the way through sixth grade. This was the exam you had to take to get into high school which started in seventh grade. If you failed that exam, you repeated sixth grade once or twice unless you had parents who were wealthy or influential who could get you in. And if you never passed, you didn't get to go to a scholastically, academically oriented second secondary school, you were tracked into a more vocational one. So I think only 13 percent of all students ended up going. I don't know where I got that number from, I hope it's not... I'm not making that up number.
SARA: A low number, though.
DR. JOHN: But it was. So then by the time you got in, you were among essentially the so-called best and the brightest, right? So I was always in the top third of my class like I remember I would always come 10th... between 10th and 12th because we were ranked, you know, and there would be a classroom of... it wasn't it wasn't the whole school but it was a classroom of about 30 to 35 students and it was almost always single sex schools, right? So all boys, all girls, British system again copying that. And my classroom would be 30 to 35 girls and at the end of each year when I was in school you were ranked from 1 to 35 unfortunately. And that ranking was read out loud unfortunately. But I say this to say that, the girl I remember who came second, she ended up migrating a year before me to the States and she went to Harvard undergrad, Harvard law, was a big time attorney on Capitol Hill. I think she still works for Microsoft, right? And this was the girl who came second, right? You know, so I'm just saying it was that type of environment so trust me, there were no non-readers.
DR. JOHN: Because that was a prerequisite to get past sixth grade, you know, so you were aggressively and that was the foundation for all of the other subjects that you were constantly taking.
SARA: I touched on this on the first episode of the podcast, me and my sister, you know Aliya, we were both held back in third grade and that was a little devastating to us and it wasn't necessarily for lack of education or... or intelligence but we just weren't motivated to read and... and the reading culture we had in our family was a solitary reading experience where our parents would read in their separate spaces and you know, we might discuss some things at the dinner table but I didn't... I didn't have that enthusiasm about reading and so if given the choice, I wouldn't read. And then you know, the experience of being held back was... so I'm gonna say it's traumatic because it is. You see all your friends go off and they are excelling and you have to be held back, you have to make new friends, you have to make new connections and then just the... the embarrassment or shame about being left behind, it was... it's a lot to overcome. I still struggle with that. But all that is to say, you know, even those folks that aren't making the grade, there's so much potential there, it's just --
DR. JOHN: Yes.
SARA: -- how can we inspire that potential and get over that?
DR. JOHN: Particularly as you mentioned in a culture now where there's so many competing influences, you know, because my niece and nephew, my nephew is kind of exceptional, my niece struggles a little. But he's not... he's very, very good at math but you know... and he got skipped a grade because of how good he was at math but at points my sister had me work with him on English because it... there's nothing emphasizing that so he just likes math so he always wants to do it, you know, but there's so many distractions to just reading, you know?
SARA: Exactly. I mean, and also like sometimes we... we find that we acquire information differently. Some people like to listen, you know? I definitely resonate with an oral tradition. I can almost have a... I want to say photographic memory but that's not true, but if I hear something it just sticks in my brain versus reading it or I play music and so I can memorize things visually but sight reading just, you know, getting a piece of music and playing it on the spot is really difficult for me so it requires constant practicing, constant focus on that in order to master that.
SARA: Well that's... yeah, thanks for sharing that. So you did mention that you had immigrated here to the United States. Can you talk about that experience and how that impacted your self-awareness and then your cultural identity as an adolescent because that's such a pivotal point in your life to transition somewhere else.
DR. JOHN: You know, it's funny. One of the reasons this might be a little more vivid in my mind is because I'm currently a student in a creative non-fiction writing class where I'm writing some... somewhat autobiographical pieces about childhood, right? So I migrated when I was 14 so it was the... I had started 10th grade which was third form in Jamaica and then my family migrated then so I came and went into 10th grade here, right? Which would have been... actually there that was the beginning of fourth, what they call fourth form. My mother fought -- right, she was a science teacher. You know, and both of my parents, you know, had... had higher... went on to do higher degrees, they both had master's degrees. But my mother fought to make sure that my sister and I were not kept back because there was an assumption that because we were coming from a predominantly Black country that the educational system was inferior, even though it was actually... it had, it was uneven because as I said, not all students were getting access to the elite education but the elite education was better than the... the average to good education in the U.S. But that wasn't known, right?
My biggest memories of culture shock related to school. So I was coming from this prep school, this all-girls prep school which was... when I say prep school, it was a public school but it functioned like a little prep school, you know, in Jamaica which was like a finishing school, right? You know, you were taking English, math, history, geography, a foreign language for like seven years, right? And then you were also taking music, theater, art, craft, cooking, and needlework as well as gym, right? These were actual subjects that you were all graded on and there was no mercy, right? Like if you couldn't draw the bowl of fruit, you're gonna fail, right?
So then I went from there where they had... not only was it organized in that way and there was the education really aggressive but you wore school uniform, you had to stand when the teacher came into the classroom, you could not sit until they had greeted you, you had a prefect who was an upperclassman who was in charge of making sure that you conducted yourself like a lady, right? Not only in class but out -- if this prefect saw you on the school eating like an ice cream with it dripping all over you on your school uniform, you might get a detention.
This was hardcore British cultural colonial mores, right? So I went from that environment which was very rigid in ways but... rigid and protected in ways but kind of free in other ways, right? You know, so there was like I remember recently writing about this thing that we used to have called the school barbecue, right? And the barbecue, it wasn't just like, okay, we're gonna have like a backyard party, this was a school event of the year, right? People... girls who are wealthy would fly from Kingston, Jamaica to Miami to buy their outfits for the barbecue, right? Like I remember somebody in like a silk sort of baggy pants outfit with heels and you know maybe it's my imagination with diamond earrings, right, this type of scenario. And then there was a concert and all of the girls would have like girl groups and you would compete with your girl group to get audition to get into the concert to get on the stage. And if you had a little boyfriend, you brought into the barbecue and so it was an extravaganza. So there was a lot of vibrancy to the life there as well.
So then I shifted and my family moved and we were... we first lived in Medford, Massachusetts, right? Working class... middle and working class first and second generation Italian, predominantly Italian community. And I shifted from this all girls high school where I had a class of 35, right, and there were probably like five such classes at each level to a school of 4,000 students, 2,000 of which were vocational, 2,000 of which were college prep. Co-ed, no school uniform, people cursing and spitting in the hallways. I felt like I had fallen into Babylon, right? Like what?!
You know and it was so at odds with the stereotypes of America, right? So I sort of transitioned from a place that I thought was quote unquote more cultured to a place where I was like what is this? You know and then add to that sort of people's total not... lack of understanding of who I was and where I came from. I remember a young girl saying to me -- and she was really well intentioned -- a young, young white girl in my school and she said are there a lot of palm trees in Jamaica, you know? And I said yes. And she's like, you must have a lot of trouble walking, pushing all the branches from your faces. It's like, huh?
Right? And then another one, I remember in the cafeteria like she felt bad that I was sort of ignored. She thought... I think, you know, because there was a group of them and they were sitting together but nobody knew really what to say to me and she said, do you celebrate Christmas in Jamaica? And I said yes and that was all she could think of to say. Right, so you know like it was just like nobody understood me. I had some of my really good friends that were second generation Italian girls who had a kind of familial, communal culture, you know and so it was... one of them I still communicate with occasionally, you know.
And you know so but it was culture shock in a variety of ways, you know, just recognize... the dissonance, this cultural dissonance between the image that I had of the U.S. and what it was like in reality, right, them not understanding me. Whereas I at least had TV shows that sort of explained some of their culture, you know, but then on the other hand when I was at home, my parents had a lot of Caribbean friends and my father was minister, was the head... the minister at the church. So like again, once I left school, I was in protected circles again, you know, so that sort of really saved my sanity.
SARA: Yeah, gave you balance in a chaotic world, I can't even imagine. Well, I can imagine. You know, I went to Panama and I served in the Peace Corps for over a year and same thing: folks definitely had an idea of what American culture was like and me showing up, I did not check all the boxes for that. A lot of people just got their... or were informed by MTV and I lived in the Caribbean side of Panama so there was the free zone so people were they had more access to the those types of commodities but it... it definitely... it was good for both parties. It was good for me to experience paradise and see, you know, the realities that I thought going into it, "Oh, I'm going to paradise, it's going to be beautiful," and then... but I remember being so upset by littering and pollution, you know?
And that was a construct that I thought the world understood and that, you know, as guardians of the environment we would protect but that's not the case when you go to different parts of the world and depending on what... what their priorities are, what their access is, what their infrastructure is like. You know, you can't make these presumptions about what your fantasy is in your mind. But yeah, that was... that was hard for me. That's... that's really great. I think everyone should experience something like that, getting into a classroom setting or a school environment that shakes you up. You know, and we'll later talk about that because I did appreciate that when I took your courses in college.
What are some of the books that were recommended to you by persons who you... who impacted your life or who inspired you who you admired and can you share those with our listeners because that reflects our category 11.
DR. JOHN: So maybe I'm going to be the... what's the word -- the rogue person -- because I think I thought of books but I don't remember that they were recommended, they ended up... I think the books that I ended up focusing on were just books that made a big impression on me.
DR. JOHN: So but the one text that I guess I would start with which was recommended wasn't the book... well, it is a book but it was the essay, the title essay of the book In Search of Our Mother's Gardens by Alice Walker, right, so that is a collection of essays, it's one of her earliest collections and the title essay is also called In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. And I was assigned that by my first teacher in college, in first year of college which would be the equivalent of the first year composition course at Boston College you know where I did my undergraduate degree, it was called critical reading and writing. The teacher was Eileen Barrett. Bless her. You know, I don't know if she's still among the living. But she assigned In Search of Our Mother's Gardens as one of the essays as well as I remember Tillie Olsen's Tell Me a Riddle I believe.
But In Search of Our Mother's Gardens was probably the first essay that I read which if I had to go back and talk about something that opened the door to me deciding to go down the path that I did where I read and studied literature, African, African-American, Afro-Caribbean literature, decided at some point that I wanted to be a teacher, it would go back to that essay. It just blew my mind because in 10 pages Walker talks about what does it mean to have dreams that never materialized, right? And she imagines what life would have been like for Black women who were enslaved but who actually had the kind of talent to have been visual artists or writers, you know, or creators in some way but instead had to just work in the plantation, you know, and had to just work under conditions of bare survival, right, and had that you know sort of beat out of them so to speak or just the opportunity not being there, you know? But the way she wrote it, it was the first time that I had thought not only about that possibility but thought about my own life. You know, what does it mean to be a Black woman, what... who are my ancestors? You know, and so that... so I would start with that, that... that text.
In terms of books, probably one of the books that made the biggest impression on me and I think a friend recommended it was Assata Shakur's autobiography, right, which I think I taught in one of the classes you took. And so Assata Shakur, you know, revolutionary from the early '70s, late '60s and early '70s, she ends up being associated with the Black Panther Party because she was in it for a while and the Black Panther Party is the party that most Americans for better or for worse associate with radical Black left activity but the truth is she was really a member of the Black Liberation Army which is even to the left of the Panther party. We won't... we won't digress onto that right now. But she... her autobiography blew my mind. And I ended up teaching it a lot, probably it's the book I've taught the most frequently throughout my career because she did several things.
First of all, the book is a masterpiece theoretically, philosophically, politically, and historically as well as even poetically in terms of its commentary. So it manages to cross a wide range of genres, right? She writes it as an autobiography but it functions in all of these ways. You know, it's a literary text, it's a political text, it's a theoretical text, it's a philosophical text, right? And so I was kind of blown away just at the level of genre by how diverse it was but then it also manages to really move the reader because what she does is she takes the reader through her life from the time that she... so she gets accused of shooting a state trooper in New York, right? She gets arrested, she's incarcerated, she's sentenced to life in prison. She's accused of a variety of other things but that's the most serious charge. And just for the readers to know, was it five years after she's convicted and sentenced to life, she escapes in some kind of Houdini trick from maximum security prison and manages to get to Cuba where she still lives. I'm sure some listeners will be dropping their jaws like who, who is this person, right? And I remember back in 2000s I had heard that the governor at the time of New Jersey had a one or two million dollar bounty on her head. And the word on the street was that the Black Liberation Army that nobody believed still existed had a two million dollar bounty on the head of whoever touched her.
DR. JOHN: That was the lore. Right.
But anyway, so but... but what is so brilliant to me about the book is... first of all she writes it herself, right? So Malcolm X's autobiography is written by Alex Haley and narrated and you have a lot of famous political biographies which are written by other people but she writes this herself, right? Second, she tells her story from the time that she's arrested on the turnpike until she escapes but what she does is she starts with her arrest and then she goes back to her childhood and she alternates. Each chapter is childhood, prison, childhood, jury, childhood. And so what you see as a reader, it's almost like a movie. You get to experience her life with her and see because, you know, people may have a stereotype about who she is when she gets convicted and depending on people's worldview like, oh, criminal, whatever, right? What was she doing in a position to have shot the state trooper? And if the trooper said she shot she shot him, then she must have, right? You know, but then when you go back and you have her narrating the story of her childhood as just the average young Black girl, any girl, any Black girl, you know, who was born between the 1940s and the 1990s could probably identify, right? And she essentially lets you realize step by step how she went from being this innocent child to someone who considered herself a revolutionary. And what I think is most compelling is that it's the... it's sort of like a tale of the conditions that relate to racism, sexism, classism, and capitalist imperialism in America, right? And she tells the tale very clearly. So I'll stop there so as not to take up too much time.
SARA: No, that's a wonderful book. Yeah, I've recommended it to the Library for purchase several times. It's one of those books that is always checked out or goes missing. There's an underground... like I don't want to call it movement but there are people who it's on the radar and they're constantly seeking it out.
SARA: And I remember reading it for your class, underlining passages and drawing comparisons with other things we were reading in class like there were so many relevant comparisons between the two that when I gave the book to someone else, they were like what, what is this? I thought this was just someone's story. And it's like, well, it's a lot deeper than that. But yeah, I definitely agree with that.
Well hey, we're gonna take a quick break. When we come back, we'll be talking about the path to becoming an educator, an education that fosters discussion of divisive topics so stick around.
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SARA: Okay, welcome back to the show. We're here with Dr. John and we have been talking about her love of literature and recommendations for category 11, a book recommended to you by someone you admire.
So I asked you on this episode because I was really struggling to find someone to fit this category that... and I... and I don't mean that to say that there aren't mentors in my life that I couldn't have asked, but I wanted the right person to interview at the right time and it was you, like I just felt like the classes that I took in college of yours really made an impact on my life and I wanted to share that broader message with our community so they can see that these discussions have been happening for a long time and they're still relevant and we can't forget. You know, we just have to keep being active in the discussion. So will you tell our listeners what sparked your interest in becoming an educator? And obviously you mentioned your love of literature and reading, but what... what prompted you to become an educator?
DR. JOHN: So I guess my quick answer to that would be twofold. One, I think it was in the genes. And two, it was a product of some of the classes that I took as an undergrad. So this, I'll deal with the second answer first. So in terms of it being classes that I took as an undergrad, I always enjoyed... you know, I enjoyed English classes and I enjoyed college generally but because of maybe my exposure to reading and writing at a young age, the reading and the writing came easily to me because I was an extremely lazy student as an undergrad so...
SARA: We all are.
DR. JOHN: So yes, so you know I was a real slacker, right? I remember sometimes not really finishing the books which that's why I have some degree of generosity and sympathy for my students when they are like that. I remember going to one class where the... he, the professor had assigned Faulkner, right? Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom and then he did this whole analysis, you know, of how it connected to Sound and the Fury and the significance of... and I was like dang, I wish I'd read it.
But anyway, so... but so part of it was that it came easily when I did do the work and... and it was always enjoyable but I had a couple of professors near the end of my career who actually invited me to help to teach the class. There were... they thought that I guess, you know, they thought that I was perceptive in terms of my analyses and so they invited me to lead the class in relation to certain texts. I remember being invited to lead a class on Alice Walker's Color Purple and Toni Morrison's Beloved and that really made a big impact on me. So that was one.
And then there was another professor whose class I took and it was a British lit class but it was fictions of empire so she was looking at texts that talked about Africa or India. And her class made a big impression because it was the first time that I realized that literature was a cornucopia of the world, that you could use literature to talk about politics, to talk about history, to talk about values, to talk about philosophy, right? You know, to talk about gender. You could... you could talk about anything. And I think up until that point I had been trapped in thinking of it mostly, you know, within the way that it functioned in particular genres in a very literary way. But when that happened, then I thought oh my gosh, I could use it to talk about anything while still focusing on the literary to some extent. And... and then I was really excited about exploring, you know, Black literature and culture because it was close to my heart and to my experience.
So that's one thing. The second piece is that I realized later that I came from like three generations of teachers. You know, so my both of my parents were teachers at various points in their lives, my grandfather was a teacher at some point, you know, and then I had aunts and uncles. And so I actually do think that it's quote unquote in the blood, you know?
SARA: Most definitely. And you know, I'm sure especially with your father being a minister and having command over your congregation, that probably inspired you a lot to see people, you know, in tune with what he was saying and teaching him and helping grapple with hard concepts.
DR. JOHN: Yeah. Although he was a storyteller so I don't remember... I remember him in church but where I really remember him was on Sundays, he would sit around the dinner table and we would be rapt in attention for two or three hours after dinner because he'd be telling stories about history or stories about politics or stories about his upbringing, you know, so that definitely... he definitely influenced me in that way.
In your classroom you promote active participation. Can you describe your pedagogical strategies to foster engagement with complex themes such as race, gender, and cultural identity? Because those are all things that come up in your classes.
DR. JOHN: Yes. So I have... my secret is what I call the five simple questions, right? Simple questions, polemical questions, controversial questions, real questions and real answers. So I'll explain what I mean. First of all, I think that the simple question is the prerequisite for any real conversation, right? You have to have something very clear that everybody can understand, right, that's not too convoluted. And unfortunately I feel like in academia, particularly my area of academia particularly by the time you get to grad school, people seem to be... the goal seems to be to ask the most complex question possible, right? And then whoever is intelligent enough to understand it might be able to hazard a guess as to the answer, right? And I... I mean sometimes I would fall into that trap but I think that the more simple I could make my questions, the better of a foundation it would be for conversation. The second trick was not being afraid of controversial questions, right? So keeping it simple but not being afraid of a controversial question, right? Because... and that's... that's something that maybe was unique to my particular courage in the classroom because I know a lot of faculty who are scared that if they ask a controversial question it will just spiral out of control and in the social media age, the fears are real, right?
DR. JOHN: And I think if I didn't have the confidence of all the years of teaching and the know-how, I probably would be afraid to go down that path without experience possibly now. But I was never afraid of a controversial question and maybe I'll come back to that. Third thing is the polemical question. Now, the polemical question is different than the controversial question. So let's say a controversial question just to make something up is how has the history of slavery impacted white Americans? People always talk about how it's impacted African Americans, but let's say psychologically has the history of slavery had an impact on the white population whether or not they're descended from people who were involved in it in any way, right? So let's just say that that's a controversial question, right?
So if I was in my class, I would say I would like your opinions and I want three or four people to contribute. In what ways do you think... do you think that the history of slavery has psychologically impacted the white population in the U.S.? Yes or no, why or why not? Take a position. That's the polemical question. So everybody has to take a position. Now, some people will be afraid to speak but some people will. And I'll say, listen, don't worry about whether or not your answer is right or wrong, you know, and don't even worry about whether or not it's your personal view. This, I'm asking you what do you think generally in society. So then people once they can distance themselves from it, they'll take the position and once somebody takes a position, right, you've entered into the realm of conversation but this is the trick: you have to have real questions like that's a real question and you have to have real... hold people accountable for real answers. So let's say I asked that question: how has the history of slavery psychologically affected the white population? A student might say, well, that reminds me of my grandfather when he used to live in Mississippi and he told me a story about going to the store and, you know, there being a lot of people of different cultures in his upbringing and that really had an impact on him.
The person did not answer the question at all. They took us on a little while goose chase somewhere else, right? So I would then say that's interesting; however, what is your answer to the question then I would repeat the question. Usually students will then be terrified, right, because my pedagogy was very in your face in that way but I really wanted people to recognize that I wanted... there was no right or wrong answer but I wanted you to attempt an answer to the actual question. Once people attempted answers to the actual questions, then other people would know where they stood in relation to that person's answers and they would have other questions or answers for either them or me. And now you're having a conversation, right? And then I think one of my talents was that I was pretty good at mediating conversations. So when I was listening to a conversation, I was good at figuring out what the person was trying to say. And if they were actually trying to answer the question but not doing it very well, I might ask them a few follow-up questions until it was clear what they were saying.
So this wouldn't be about the quality of their answer, right, or whether or not I agreed with it, it would really simply be about what are they trying to say. So then I would say okay, so Sara is taking the position that one of the effects of slavery psychologically on whites is denial. So that's her position. So what... what do the rest of you think? What... what are your views? You don't have to imitate what she says or whatever but where do you come in? Let's get a few different, you know, answers. So then another person will say this, says okay, so now one person says there's denial, one person says that it's actually not relevant, they don't think that it has had an impact, you know? So then I would be pretty good at then continuing to put the positions in dialogue, right? So if we say that there has been no impact on the one hand or we say that there is denial, how do we know which of these things is true? What sources of evidence can we draw on to draw any kinds of conclusions? So part of it also is that I was very quick at thinking on my feet, you know, once I... you know, but I would never go into the classroom without knowing my subject matter fairly well. And after I taught a class for years, I could kind of predict what some of the views would be so then I would be prepared in advance --
DR. JOHN: -- for the possibility of those things coming up, right? You know, but it was always about making sure that people continued -- I respected every voice, that was the other thing. I didn't feel as if somebody had a really conservative view and somebody had a really liberal view that only one person should be allowed to speak. As a matter of fact, the best classes were when both of those people felt entitled to speak and we could really continue to converse and see where the strengths and weaknesses were. Now, I had views about where I stood, you know, but I felt as if my job was to highlight the strengths and the weaknesses of an argument. If it so happened that, you know, the strengths and weaknesses fell more on one side than the other, well hey, you know, that's just the way the cookie crumbles but my goal was to really put pressure on the argument, you know?
SARA: Right. And then you have the students that are, you know, supporting or, you know, challenging those opinions and so then that takes the burden off of you as the educator to, like you said, there's not a right or wrong answer but then you're having peers, you know, re-evaluate answers like that.
DR. JOHN: Exactly.
SARA: Sometimes you can foster more change that way or faster and I felt that way for sure in your class.
Wonderful. Well, we're going to take another quick break. When we come back, we'll be talking about stepping off campus and connecting rural Jamaican youth with their histories and the experiences of their ancestors so stay tuned.
VOICE: Do you know there's history all around you? Download the Pocketsights app from the Google Play Store or App Store to your phone and gain access to walking tours of Wichita. These self-guided tours display archived photos of Wichita spanning back to the city's inception through the early 20th century. Travel back in time and discover landmarks of Wichita while learning about our city's rich past. Visit wichitalibrary.org/historywalk to learn more.
SARA: Welcome back to the show. We're here with Dr. John and we've been talking about her path to becoming an educator and her untraditional strategies and educating her students. So can you talk to our listeners about Woodside and b l a c k s p a c e [pronounced "black space"]? That's something I found on your website to find... I found really intriguing and I'd like for you to share that with our listeners.
DR. JOHN: Okay. Well, let's see. Woodside. Woodside is a rural community in Jamaica in the... up in the mountainous, hilly region of the parish of Saint Mary, right? And I was introduced to it by the work of scholar, historian, activist, and fiction writer Erna Brodber who's a Jamaican writer. I had read one of her essays when I was a graduate student and it made a big impression on me. And then I had a friend who knew her personally. And when I went home to Jamaica in 2000 for a family reunion, this friend asked me if I wanted to meet her in person which to me was a great honor because, you know, I was sort of in awe of her work. So the friend drove myself and my sister, a friend and her husband, to Woodside. And we were in Kingston, Jamaica at the time, in the city. Woodside was probably about an hour and a half drive up into the hills. And it was a very peaceful, wonderful environment and I... Dr. Brodber allowed me to interview her, right? At the time, I wanted to ask her questions about one of the novels that she'd written. Her novel was called Louisiana -- another recommendation -- that I had appreciated. Very difficult novel but probably worth the struggle. And I remember she said to me, "I think we'll do great things together," just out of the blue. You know, and I didn't know why she said that but I felt the energy when she said it. And then the following summer, for no reason that I could rationally explain, I called her and asked her if she needed my help teaching what was... what she called emancipation summer school. And she had written this small book called The History of my Jamaican Village in which she had researched the history not of Jamaica generally which there's lots of histories of, but of her small village in Jamaica which probably had... I don't know, less than 5,000 people. And she researched it all the way back to the 1500s.
SARA: Oh, wow.
DR. JOHN: And she was a... she was a real archival historian on some level, right? And she had discovered records going forward. You know, so she so... you know, she discovered lots of records, some records of the early territory. Maps, things of that sort. And what she managed to do was to figure out when it had been a plantation during a period of slavery, who owned it. I think it was a man named John Nielsen. It was a coffee estate. She'd found records which had indicated what the names were of some of the people who were on the plantation during the time when it transitioned from slavery to freedom in 1838, right? And she discovered that 17 of those families still lived in the community. And then she was able to, through records and then through, you know, sort of her imagining... so part historical, part imagination to reconstruct some of the rituals that people in that community had done to celebrate emancipation from slavery back in 1838, right?
So she then spearheaded an emancipation celebration in the community. And emancipation had been a national holiday in Jamaica prior to independence from England which happened in 1962. And then independence had replaced emancipation as a national holiday. But she did an interview as part of her research with a lot of elderly people in the early 1970s whose grandparents had lived through slavery. That would have been my grandfather's generation, his grandparents. And they said, and this is a Jamaican phrase, "dish out 1st of August" which translates to you abandoned the celebration of emancipation and in so doing, you've disrespected everything we went through, right? So she was instrumental in being part of the team that worked to get emancipation reinstated as a national holiday in Jamaica and so it is a national holiday as well as independence so it's both as opposed to one replacing the other. So the emancipation summer school in the village was a summer school that she would have each summer where they... you know, the village children would learn some English, some maths. You know, it was like a regular summer school on one level but it was one of the main purposes was to teach them about the history of the village because things like that weren't taught in the Jamaican school system, right? You know, just the history of slavery was generically brushed over just like it is in the U.S. There were no specifics. So that was the purpose of emancipation summer school. So I went and I helped her and I ended up going back for seven consecutive summers and then three summers after that, you know. And you know, so that's the Woodside story.
You know, black space is more specific. As someone who worked on the history of slavery specific to Jamaica and then to some extent in the diaspora, she always said -- and this is one of the things that drew me to her work because I saw her give a talk where she talked about re-engineering black space and completing the task of emancipation -- so she said that emancipation from slavery was incomplete for many of us who were the descendants of formerly enslaved Africans, meaning that although we had official emancipation from enslavement, the societies even in places like Jamaica where we were in the majority were not re-engineered to meet our needs. So it wasn't as if there were reparations where people got land after their ancestors had worked to build up the society, that didn't happen. It wasn't as if the school systems were redesigned to meet the needs of that population. They were still organized on this British colonial model as per where I started our conversation. It wasn't as if the political, medical, and religious institutions were redesigned to privilege the culture of the people who are in the majority. Instead, they continued on that British path so it was like catch up or, you know, drop out, right?
And so one of her theories was that not only did that represent a sort of incomplete emancipation, right, for us because we didn't have the choice in terms of how freedom was crafted, right, but it had also created a situation in which psychologically, spiritually, culturally, and economically many of us were suffering and... from things that we had weren't even aware of or things that we didn't even have the opportunity to explore or understand and that if we came together as Black people for small group meetings in a private way, we could work out some of our differences. So that was the black space concept. And so that... those symposiums, seminars, reasonings would happen each year before the emancipation celebration. It would just be a small group of people coming together to talk about a particular idea but to also share where they were personally in the midst of all of this.
SARA: That's really interesting. I was... I was recently listening to the radio on NPR and they were talking about this concept of Afro Latinidad, have you heard of that? So like that's the African diaspora folks that are in Latin America.
DR. JOHN: Okay, yes.
SARA: And how often they, you know, don't feel like they fit in the conversation and so... and that's something that we start to see when we're talking about intersectionality and different groups and how those groups are represented or how they're, you know, able to express themselves. But I think it is important. You know, it's... the political climate is it's really intense right now when you talk about critical race theory or if you talk about these types of topics, but we do need to reevaluate our education system, we do need to re-evaluate the histories that we're telling or including narratives that are left out and that just helps folks that aren't part of the majority or the "dominant culture" if you will, see themselves because that also plays into how well they're doing in school, that plays into part on how engaged they are in reading and print motivation, you know? And so all of these topics are timely even if certain groups don't want to have those conversations or want to exclude folks from having those conversations. I don't see a danger in exploring ideas especially if it can help broaden your mindset.
SARA: Well, one final question for you. What other projects are you affiliated with outside of a university setting? You mentioned, you know, the work you do in the Caribbean but I know you've got your hands on a lot of different things. Can you share with our listeners what you do in the day-to-day or projects that you're passionate about?
DR. JOHN: Oh my goodness, let's see, let's see. It's one of those questions where for some reason I'm drawing a blank even though after I get off, I might think of five things, right? Projects, oh lord.
SARA: Well, can I just --
DR. JOHN: Okay, yes, go ahead.
SARA: I was gonna say, can I prompt you? I remember one class I took at OU was an African dance class and you had just come in and were you must have been friends with the professor at the time because you had come in and were chatting with her and I was like oh, Dr. John, I wasn't expecting to see you in here so it seems like you have that... that connection to, you know, music and rhythm outside of just literature.
DR. JOHN: Yes. Well, my husband is a west African master drummer and dancer.
DR. JOHN: Right, and so in part I've one foot in that world partly because of him like I helped him, I booked some of his gigs and you know... and so yeah, you know, and assist with that so... so there's that. I don't think I have a deep foot in that world personally beyond assisting him. But what I was going to say is one thing that I do have which is as I thought was like, oh yes, projects. My sister and I formed a company to cater to... to partner with a friend in Jamaica who organizes self-care retreats for women to sort of de-stress, right? You know and I've noticed that those things have like... we did our first one in 2019, it was called Lemonade, right? And the idea was -- it was not based on Beyonce's Lemonade.
SARA: Yeah, I wasn't gonna say that.
DR. JOHN: But the idea, the idea was that the friend, it was her concept, you know? Her name is Nellakai. She had the concept of Lemonade long before, you know? And the idea was that as women we carry what she said lemons, right, in psychologically or physically in our bodies which may be she described it as either emotional or physical hearts and pains that we haven't processed, right, that are affecting us whether in terms of anxiety or depression or actual physical illness. And so the goal of the Lemonade was to take people through in a very short sort of weekend workshop. So it was three days in the Caribbean where the first day you were identifying the lemons, what are the things that you're carrying? The second day you were cutting and squeezing the lemons which was trying to figure out what the sources of these things were. You know, how and why had you developed these, you know, lemons, lemon-like situations? And the third was making lemonade which was trying to figure out how to transform the negative into something more positive. So we are in conversations about doing post-COVID. You know, more... there were lots and lots of people who were interested after we did the first one because they're pretty small. They're probably like seven to ten people so it can be intimate and people can feel safe. But that's one thing I'm involved in.
SARA: That's wonderful. We didn't really touch on this earlier but one of the classes I took was a hip-hop class for as... excuse me as poetry and studying culture. And that was such an untraditional class but so amazing because can you speak to our listeners and tell them a little bit about, well, one your passion for hip-hop music but then also how you structured that class? Because it's so different than any other class I've taken in college.
DR. JOHN: Yeah. You know, it ended up being my most popular class. You know, I probably I taught it at OU straight for about I think 13 to 14 years. I ended up getting a teaching award which was just for that class, right? But what... so I, you know, I started to teach it back in like 2006 and before that in 2003 and 2004 I had started to include in my literature classes one hip-hop album, right, as a text, as a literary text, right? And when we... and I... and when we included the hip-hop album, we would study it as we would a book of literature, right, treating each song as if it was a chapter in a... in a book. What is the theme, what is the message? You know, what is the philosophical world view that's being presented? You know, what is the complexity of the rhyme scheme, rhythm and use or disuse of iambic pentameter or other structures rhythmic structures, right? And then students had to memorize 10 lines from one of the songs to perform. This was in the pre-hip-hop class, just the literature class. But I did it because what... I mean I liked... I liked some of hip-hop because I was early, I would say early hip-hop baby like I was... I came of age when it was first becoming commercial music. You know, Grand Master Flash's The Message, you know, probably came out in the early '80s, you know, when I was a teenager.
And so... and then I grew up in Dorchester in Boston, right? We moved from Medford to Dorchester. Dorchester was gritty, it was pre-gentrification, it was violent. You know, that was the background noise to that era, right? So... so it really impacted me. But then at some point just like with literature, what I said about literature being sort of octagonal in terms of all of the different things you could use literature to do, I realized that hip-hop was like that. You could use hip-hop to talk about politics, to talk about gender relations, talk about violence, you know, to talk about self-love or self-hate. You know, you could use it to talk about poetry, you know. And so I was like oh, you know, this is like the... you know as one rapper calls, it hip-hop is our CNN, right? And I was like oh there, this is... this is it right here, you know?
So I... so then I decided to see if I could pioneer a class, you know, which turned out to be successful. And with the class, I would always structure it... it had three parts. The first part was helping students to understand the social and political conditions that gave birth to the music which was always essentially a story about Black people in America. So people who hadn't taken any other race classes suddenly got a sort of immersion and baptism in, you know, what were the things that shaped the most oppressed aspects of the Black population, right? And I think so I think that was educational.
Then the second part of the class was studying... taking some of the artists and their albums and treating them like literary texts and just treating them as seriously as we treat other literary texts, trying to understand the rhyme, the rhythm, the message, the complexity of the philosophical worldview and arguing about the controversies, you know, that emerged. So just taking it, the... the literature, the music as literature and culture seriously.
And then the third part was performance, right? And I included that because they claim that there are five elements of hip-hop originally: the DJ, the MC, the breakdancer, the graffiti artist, and the fifth element was knowledge of self, right? And so I felt as if students needed to bring their own self-knowledge into the class and also if they had to do a little bit of performance it would give them respect for the art form because I had a whole bunch of students who used to ridicule certain rappers and I remember one young white male after the class saying I'll never make fun of an A/B rhyme scheme again. Because you know, it's hard to imitate. So I mean some people have that skill and now it's become so much a part of popular culture that a lot of people from the very young are trying to practice, right? But it's no simple thing and I just wanted them to understand the complexity of something that people took for granted or may even have ridiculed and thought was inferior art.
SARA: Definitely. And then at the end you had us battle each other.
DR. JOHN: Oh yes.
SARA: Do you remember that?
DR. JOHN: Yes. So three different performances. One performance was spoken word where they you... had to write your own poems. The second was technique where you had to memorize and perform lyrics from one of the artists. And the third was freestyle. And that was kind of fun. You know, it was at once the hardest and the easiest because I was judging that with the least, you know, aggressive measure. I remember the prompt usually said you have to speak for 45 seconds and there was a topic. You had to pick... we would pick a topic but you had to just keep going for 45 seconds and you had to, you know, kind of battle someone else. But again, just to showcase how difficult the art form is because for people to be able to do that off the top of their heads and rhyme and make sense and be clever, how is that possible?
SARA: That was the most stressful part for me. I remember because our class was so big and it was one of the first classes you taught that I didn't get to battle the first day so I had to come back the second day so I was like trying to think of rhymes in my head before and I was... yeah, it was so hard. But it was very impactful and I did appreciate it because it... you force people out of their comfort zones and that kind of I feel like is a theme in most of your classes, you know? It's like...
SARA: Humbling. You can... you know, if you can have little amounts of success that can overshadow any failure or, you know, any inferiority that you're feeling, as long as you can build yourself up again.
DR. JOHN: Yeah. Yeah.
SARA: Well, thank you so much, Dr. John. It's been such a pleasure to see you again and talk with you.
DR. JOHN: You too.
SARA: And I just wanted to, like I said, have you on this podcast. You've been such an influential person in my life, really helped me. I have, like I mentioned, I have a daughter and she's going to a middle school right now where she's in the minority and she came home one day and said, "I'm really glad I'm here, mom. This is really good for me to experience this and be... and make my own community, you know, my own tribe," because she was really nervous about going somewhere where she wouldn't know anybody and yeah, she's doing really well. So I just wanted to say you helped inspire me to do that and facilitate that for my own family.
DR. JOHN: Oh, thank you. That means a lot.
SARA: I hope you have a wonderful day and I'll be looking for you online soon, okay?
DR. JOHN: Sounds good.
SARA: Best of luck.
SARA, VOICEOVER: Today we are joined by three librarians who will share their recommendations for noteworthy books that fit category 11, a book recommended by someone you admire.
CASSIE: My name is Cassie and I'm part of the programming team here at the Wichita Advanced Learning Library. Today I'm going to share with you a book recommended by someone I admire. The someone I admire is let's say a guy named Will, an officer and a gentleman, a scholar and my best friend. The book is A Test of Wills by Charles Todd. It is 1919 and the war to end all wars has been won but there's no peace for Scotland Yard inspector Ian Rutledge, recently returned from the battlefields of France shell-shocked and tormented by the ever-present voice of the young Scot he had to execute for refusing an order. Escaping into his work to save his sanity, Rutledge investigates the murder of a popular colonel in Warwickshire and his alleged killer, a decorated hero and close friend of the prince of Wales. What sets Rutledge apart is that his PTSD or shellshock from the war exhibits itself in the form of Hamish MacLeod, a fellow comrade deceased in the war who now haunts Rutledge as a second conscience he hears in his head. The book explains why this is. It is critical to note Hamish is an integral part of Rutledge's character. He cannot recover from him. The reason I love this book is it's become a springboard for reading other historical fiction mysteries such as Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs or the Bess Crawford mysteries also by Charles Todd. Speaking of the author, the author's name actually acts as a red herring, helping create an unpredictability that keeps us turning the page.
JANELLE MERCER: Hi, my name is Janelle Mercer and I am one of the technology trainers at the Advanced Learning Library in Wichita. For category 11, a book recommended by someone you admire, I chose Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. The book was recommended to me by my co-worker Ben. This book was published in 2012 and was on the New York Times bestseller list multiple times. I ended up listening to this book on Libby. As someone who identifies as an introvert and was so shy growing up that it was recommended I go back to preschool after being in kindergarten for a month, I found this book extremely insightful. In Quiet, Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts and shows how much we lose in doing so. The author sprinkles research and relatable stories throughout the book of real people who are both introverts and extroverts. I was surprised to find out that one-third of the people we know are introverts and that some extremely famous people were introverts including Rosa Parks, Chopin, Dr. Seuss, and Steve Wozniak. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to understand more about the power of introverts as well as the power of extroverts.
JEFF TATE: Hi, this is Jeff Tate, Digital Services Manager with the Wichita Public Library with a recommendation for category 11, a work recommended by someone you admire. My recommendation is A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan. The novel is a slow burn gothic style period piece that explores the philosophic nature of faith, duty, grief, and the goodness of humankind in the face of darkness. Set during Reconstruction, civil war veteran Jacob Hansen is the pastor, constable, and undertaker of a small Wisconsin town. That town is besieged by drought and a diphtheria outbreak and if that wasn't enough, a wildfire moves slowly towards the town, bringing chaos and random death and destruction. As the town confronts the horrors of the outbreak and the fire moves towards the town, Jacob's different jobs and sense of responsibility pulls him in multiple ways as he tries to maintain order, provide hope to the faithful, and care for the dead. Throughout the novel, O'Nan explores the psychology and philosophy of our duty to ourselves our communities and our families and to the nature of loss and love. O'Nan masterfully creates a sense of fear and growing dread and the reader is wonderfully pulled along as Jacob descends into grief and despair, his piety gradually pulled away by the growing nightmare to reveal the psychological scars we are all carrying. O'Nan brilliantly combines historical fiction, gothic horror, and psychological thriller in a novel that has been compared to Shirley Jackson and Cormac McCarthy's The Road. A Prayer for the Dying is dark, relentless, powerful. It is also wildly imaginative, deeply haunting, and one of the best pieces of literature from the past 25 years. Enjoy reading it.
SARA MCNEIL, VOICEOVER: Thank you for those awesome recommendations and thank you to the listeners of today's episode. Listeners can request books by visiting our website, wichitalibrary.org, or calling the Library at (316) 261-8500. To participate in the ReadICT reading challenge, please visit wichitalibrary.org/readict. To find a full list of books mentioned in this episode, please visit wichitalibrary.org/podcast. And as always, stay connected with other ReadICT participants on the ReadICT Challenge Facebook page. Find out what's trending near you, post book reviews, look for local and virtual events, and share book humor with like-minded folks.
You can follow this podcast through the Anchor app or stream episodes wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you heard today, be sure to leave us a 5 star review. This has been a production of the Wichita Public Library and a big thanks goes out to all those staff members who helped produce this series. A special thanks goes out to Sara Dixon, Sean Jones, Greg Nordyke, Jeff Tate, Julie Sherwood, and Kyle Holly for making this project a reality. I'm your host, Sara McNeil. Thank you for listening to the first season of Read. Return. Repeat. We hope you've enjoyed learning more about the ReadICT reading challenge and stay tuned for more information about upcoming seasons in 2022. Until then, happy reading.