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How To Do Culture

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Exercising the fundamental human right to freedom of expression is how to do culture. Humanities Fund invites you to share your thoughts on the year 2018 and make your contribution to culture.

Culture is the collective experience and expression of our humanity. It is the cumulative account of human attempt, achievement, and failure. When we do culture, we function as active participants in the cultural process and hold ourselves and each other accountable for the culture we create. When we do culture, we take responsibility for upholding and uplifting the free expression of humanity. We can do culture together by realizing freedom of expression as a universal human right.

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Escaping Russia, Finding Trump

Recently, in keeping with an every-other-daily tradition familiar to most expats, I sat down for a phone conversation with my parents, two Armenian immigrants who have spent the last 20 or so years living in Russia. These conversations usually entail my being awake at late hours to accommodate the St. Petersburg mornings, and thus tend towards a similar set of bleary and mundane topics — family gossip from my mother or forgetful retellings of history from my father. This time, however, our conversation drifted towards the rarely broached topic of politics; a subject that our vague fear of state surveillance kept buried in tension. I have always thought my life as an immigrant to be fundamentally political; my parents disagreed. “There is none... very little xenophobia in Russia. We feel at home here.” I sit and reflect on the experiences we've shared, and I wonder how that could be true. After all, these are the same experiences that led me to leave Russia in the first place.

I have no early memories of Armenia, the country of my ethnicity and birth. By 1994, with the recession deepening and the Nagorno-Karabakh War encroaching on civilian life, my father was already determined to leave Yerevan. After months of deliberation, he flew out to Murmansk, Russia leaving his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter behind until he could afford to bring them along. Very soon after my birth, my mother bought one-way tickets to Saint-Petersburg. Here the three of us settled into a family contact’s vacant apartment, waiting for my father to reunite with us.

Each night she would hear men coming back home from another night of drinking, shouting and banging on the walls as they ambled up and down the stairs.

I am still fascinated by the courage of my mother: a young immigrant woman with two small children and no social resources, isolated and placeless. She recently admitted to me that during those early years she lived in fear, keeping a sharpened kitchen knife in her reach at all times. Each night she would hear men coming back home from another night of drinking, shouting and banging on the walls as they ambled up and down the stairs. One of my sister’s earliest memories from this time is of a bruised and screaming woman — a victim of domestic abuse — falling at her feet, begging for help. Reasonably, my mother became very protective during those initial years; we rarely left the apartment and lived relatively undisturbed in the bubble of our family for the next few years.

My first encounter with open, explicit racism came during assembly on my first day of elementary school. Some kid sitting next to me, noting that I clearly wasn’t Russian, confidently told me I should go back to wherever I came from. I responded — in equal parts confusion and impulse —- by punching him. Similar experiences littered my middle and high school years, although my reaction to these incidents softened. Like many minority children, I hoped that a strong work ethic and a low profile would even the social disparity between my peers and I. Despite my efforts, I faced a steady stream of derision from not only my classmates, but also my educators and my school system at large. One teacher, who I later learned was no outlier, would significantly mark down the grades of students who were not ethnically Russian. Admittedly, she was very open about her dislike of immigrant students. This was the norm.

As I progressed through my early teenage years and grew more familiar with Russian media, I began to recognize my experiences with racial hostility as instances of a larger national trend. A prominent public figure at the time was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a politician who had gained a significant profile through his leadership of the ultranationalist LDPR (Liberal-Democratic Party), and whose platform advocated for the deportation of Asiatic peoples, limiting the birth rate of Muslims, and building walls to protect Russian borders. Zhirinovsky’s charged rhetoric and increasing parliamentary power had made immigrants like myself targets of political ire and often enough, violence. I vividly remember the murder of Karen Abramian, an immigrant from Armenia who was stabbed 56 times by a gang of Russian nationalists. Every such case made me weak in my knees, fearing for my life and the lives of my family.

In 2010, I was accepted to an international school in the United States, where I finished my primary education and went on to college. Years passed, and I grew comfortable in the diverse and dynamic environment NYC was offering me. But in the 2016 election, in this new tide of Trump-inflected nationalism, I recognize the spectre of Zhirinovsky (who has even suggested that he and Donald might share the same DNA.) Trump has certainly replicated much of the rhetoric and public policy I observed in Russia a decade ago: mass deportation and the suspension of immigrant rights, xenophobia, and racial resentment. But I have also witnessed an organization and unity among people, something that I found sorely lacking in Russia. It is inspiring seeing people go out on streets and fight for their rights, and for the lives of people who are oppressed and feel even more oppressed under the current government. The energy that has inspired these objectors has also inspired me to channel my political energy into my work as a political cartoonist.

Reflecting on this past, I recognize that my life as an immigrant is marked by this significant rupture: the nation of my parents is not a nation I can ever call “home.”

Reflecting on this past, I recognize that my life as an immigrant is marked by this significant rupture: the nation of my parents is not a nation I can ever call "home." Putin has said that “Russia is for Russians”; what does this mean for me? My views are not Russian, my work is certainly not Russian, I am not Russian.


Gurgen Aloian is an illustrator based in Brooklyn, NY. He has a unique experience in that he emigrated first from Yerevan, Armenia to St. Petersburg, Russia as a child, and then to New York in order to pursue a career in political cartooning. More of his work can be seen at gurgenaloian.com.

The Janitor Speaks America

I’m the janitor shining these hallways
of promise
of America.
Oh! How the linoleum rolling
light
goes from sea to sea
The glory of these students’
dreams
I sweep and dust mop Sweet
Liberty!
Oh! How independence sings
so
giftedly like the teachers, students and
I.


"Working as a janitor, writing gives me an escape. It allows me to dream of something bigger. Poetry makes me feel important while being a janitor gives me plenty to write about. So I enjoy doing both. I hope readers can enjoy the poetry I write, just as much as I do."

Danny P. Barbare has been writing poetry off and on for 37 years. He has worked as a janitor for about 20 years. He says he loves both his occupation and art. He attended Greenville Technical College.

Sweet Tea

I have a strong feeling this will not last, because that is what we have been taught by our mothers and fathers. Nothing is infinite. Or at least very few things are. And love probably won’t conquer our cruel nature.

I have a strong feeling this season will end, because every season ends. That’s what we have been taught. But maybe our Winters will turn into Spring so quickly that we won’t even know we’ve made it until well after we are sipping sweet tea in the heart of July.

You wipe sweat off your furrowed brow and whisper to me, “this is refreshing.”


Paris Weslyn is the return of Spring, creeping forth to cast out the darkness of Winter. She is a Black woman refreshed, reborn, and blossoming, whose purpose is to respond to existence with awe and wonder.

Snowmelt

Mountain peaks speak
curling tendrils of fog and
laughing down the avalanche
under a cold sun sloping across the Meridian,
the Boise, and the Caldwell’s
quicksand sky—

Towers of sand, perhaps
pillars of salt stand
quietly near the small town’s
moonlamp glow, still
defiant under streetside snow—

And earthworms mourn
in the heart of darkness
under smooth rocks,
no foothold, just gold
nuggets at an icy bus stop-side
McDonald’s, a meal fit
for starving kings breathing steam and
wearing garbage bag capes
once filled with Tulsan
Christmas gifts—

Until the snowmelt begins:
thoughts and steps stir again and
“Even if God doesn’t exist,
I like him” melts in with my ice cream,
and the voices I have known
transmigrate from bodies millions of miles away,
and the world feels immense—

They are me and they are on all sides, all edges.
The spring bloom follows winter’s fading steps
and I sit patiently, the world in me
thawing.

"I choose words but hope my poems leave the reader with fresh images. Jessica Mehta's "Jackson Street" has inspired me in this pursuit with its rich, tangible detail."


Elisaveta Bozmarova is a Bulgarian-American poet and memoirist. She is working an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College. Her work appears or is forthcoming in FlyPaper Magazine, Timber Journal and Cal Literary Arts Magazine. For super-spiritual photos of flowers in the Bay Area, follow her on Instagram @ellieboz.

Jackson Street

Nothing we found fit, so we built
our first house from the weeds
up. Virgin land, gurgling with spiders
and an out of control apple tree—it dropped
fermented fruits on the earth, drunken
offerings for livestock
that hadn’t roamed that farmland
for decades. Above the flood plains,
past the blackberry bushes,
it took months to close,
to get the permits, collect
yes stamps like A grades. Then,
on a frosted September day
that felt like winter, we asked blessings
of the land, permission from the gods
to Build. I wore that one sundress,
black with cutouts at the midriff,
and old cowboy boots. With burning sage
in one hand and a gathered skirt
in the other, I circled our small hill,
our Home,
muttering prayers in the chill
while you snapped photo
after photo from weathered Jackson Street.


Jessica (Tyner) Mehta is a Cherokee poet and novelist. She’s the author of four collections of poetry including Secret-Telling Bones, Orygun, What Makes an Always, and The Last Exotic Petting Zoo as well as the novel The Wrong Kind of Indian. She’s been awarded numerous poet-in-residencies posts, including positions at Hosking Houses Trust and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, Paris Lit Up in France, and the Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe, NM. Jessica is the recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund in Poetry. She is the owner of a multi-award winning writing services business, MehtaFor, and is the founder of the Get it Ohm! karma yoga movement. Visit Jessica’s author site at www.jessicamehta.com.

Raindrops

Raindrops

Onward stretches the day,
As trees in the wind do sway.
'Neath skies steel and gray,
The raindrops are but yesterdays.
Travelling through space and time,
Alighting here, I know not why.
That which gives the body life
Gives also to the mind.

Upon these slick'd streets
Present and past do meet.
The city, still half asleep,
Yet dreams of the distant and the deep;
Of oaken hills and mother's love,
Just beyond reach like the graceful dove.
Heavy with rain, she stops to land
In the palm of my outstretched hand.

Benjamin Schneider is currently an editorial fellow at CityLab, and a freelance writer.

Jack Frost

Jack Frost

I found my mom in bed one afternoon, limp and sprawled long like a tired thing. Her little TV was on. It was one of those small square kinds with bright-colored slots for red and yellow cables at the bottom.

There are some people at the door, I told her. The same people as last time. They asked for you.

You shouldn’t open the door for strangers, she said. She sighed and tilted her head to the left, giving her a better view of the screen. Her hair pressed against her cheek, sticky from sweat, some strands caught between her lips. I love this episode. It reminds me of when I was little like you, she said. She kept watching and smiled to herself. And I knew for the rest of the day she would only be silent.

Julian Robles is a writer in New York City and a contributing editor for We Do Culture. 

Second Inaugural Address

Fellow Countrymen:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

If

If

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

The Endless Giving of Lil Peep

The Endless Giving of Lil Peep

This won’t be about the tour bus. Or the messy details of an overdose. This won’t even be about the life of a kid named Gus. Someone else— a mom, friends, a brother, old lovers— will reckon with those fragments. They don’t belong to us. So instead I’ll write about the musician Lil Peep, brief thoughts on what he gave. Let’s call it a piecing together.

Julian Robles is a writer in New York City and contributing editor for We Do Culture. 

Eyes to Be

She's got eyes to be
another passive reader like me.
Fallen far behind,
picking up the paper trail line.
Holy ride,
polaroid life,
in blue.

I want to be real too,
be see through,
be like you. 

She's got eyes to be
a teletransportating machine.
Fallen far behind,
picking up the paper trail line.
Holy ride,
polaroid life,
in blue.

I want to be real too,
be see through,
be like you. 

A Woman's Place in Science

A Woman's Place in Science

This modern world of science and invention is of particular interest to women, for the lives of women have been more affected by its new horizons than those of any other group. Profound and stirring as have been accomplishments in the remoter fields of pure research, it is in the home that the applications of scientific achievement have perhaps been most far-reaching, and it is through changing conditions there that women have become the greatest beneficiaries in the modern scheme.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

Letter from Birmingham Jail

16 April 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergyman:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

A New Birth of Freedom

A New Birth of Freedom

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

Farewell to Model T

see by the new Sears Roebuck catalogue that it is still possible to buy an axle for a 1909 Model T Ford, but I am not deceived. The great days have faded, and the end is in sight. Only one page in the current catalogue is devoted to parts and accessories for the Model T; yet everyone remembers springtimes when the Ford gadget section was larger than men's clothing, almost as large as household furnishings. The last Model T was built in 1927, and the car is fading from what scholars call the American scene - which is an understatement, because to a few million people who grew up with it, the old Ford practically was the American scene. It was the miracle that God had wrought.

Kanye and His Vanguard

Here is the transcript of Kanye West's VMA Vanguard acceptance speech:

“Bro. Bro! Listen to the kids. First of all, thank you, Taylor, for being so gracious and giving me this award this evening.

And I often think back to the first day I met you also. You know I think about when I’m in the grocery store with my daughter and I have a really great conversation about fresh juice… and at the end they say, ’Oh, you’re not that bad after all!’ And like I think about it sometimes. … It crosses my mind a little bit like when I go to a baseball game and 60,000 people boo me. Crosses my mind a little bit.

Sonnet XXIX

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state, 
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate, 
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, 
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope, 
With what I most enjoy contented least; 
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state, 
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings. 

(1609)

What Educated Women Can Do

An ancient Sanskrit saying says, woman is the home and the home is the basis of society. It is as we build our homes that we can build our country. If the home is inadequate -- either inadequate in material goods and necessities or inadequate in the sort of friendly, loving atmosphere that every child needs to grow and develop -- then that country cannot have harmony and no country which does not have harmony can grow in any direction at all.