“A White Canon in a World of Color,” by Sierra Lomuto

“I was recently in my hometown of San Francisco, walking through the Mission district on Christmas Eve looking for a place to pop into and get some work done. I had some grading to finish for my Chaucer class. I worked for a bit in a café at Valencia and 24th St. But when it closed early at 4pm, because of the holiday, I made my way toward the local library a couple blocks away.

[. . .]

“Wrapped around the face of the building were etchings of names, six per column, and the first read: Homer, Virgil, Rabelais, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante. My eyes followed the carved words around to the side where they ended, each name digging a pit deeper into my stomach. Here I was, in the heart of the Mission, a Latinx neighborhood for as long as most San Franciscans’ memories can reach back to, and a building that is meant to represent knowledge, learning, community, safety. . . is encased with the names of white men. I wanted this old stone building, this old library in the Mission, to offer me some solace amidst a devastating present, to remind me that knowledge, education, and learning are paths out of socio-economic oppression.

“Instead, it reminded me that those paths too often lead us toward our own epistemological oppression—and do too little for the places and people we came from. The façade of the Mission library reminded me that those paths belong to white men; the rest of us merely walk them. [. . .]”   –Sierra Lomuto, “A White Canon in a World of Color,” Medievalists of Color (March 26, 2019)

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

“So under the spell of the reefer I discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths. And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco, and beneath that lay a still lower level on which I saw a beautiful girl the color of ivory pleading in a voice like my mother’s as she stood before a group of slaveowners who bid for her naked body, and below that I found a lower level and a more rapid tempo and I heard someone shout:

“‘Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the “Blackness of Blackness.” ’”   –Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

This extract is available to read at Penguin Books.

Edward Smyth Jones, “Harvard Square” (1910)

“I would like to submit one last example of a writer of color who turns to Dante in a moment of personal crisis. Consider the case of Edward Smythe Jones, who ‘in his over-mastering desire to drink at the Harvard fountain of learning tramped out of the Southland up to Cambridge. Arriving travel-worn, friendless, moneyless, hungry, he was preparing to bivouac on the Harvard campus his first night in the University city, when, being misunderstood, and not believed, he was apprehended as a vagabond and thrown into jail. A poem, however, the poem which tells this story, delivered him. The judge was convinced by it… and set him free to return to the academic shades’ (Kerlin 163-64). The poem called ‘Harvard Square’ ends on this note: ‘Cell No. 40, East Cambridge Jail, Cambridge, Massachusetts, July 26, 1910.’ But the familiar scenario of a black man harassed by the police and thrown in jail for no discernible reason is transformed into a magical encounter with the muse. The divine goddess of inspiration comes to the poet’s aid with a brief lesson in literary history in which she compares his fate to Dante’s — ‘I placed great Dante in exile’ — suggesting that she has now done the same to Jones. Dante’s actual banishment from Florence sheds light on the figurative exile of Jones: the Negro in the white man’s world; the southerner in the North; the backwoodsman in the ‘University city’; the autodidact amidst the hypereducated; and the would-be Dante at the very center of Dante’s American home.”   — Dennis Looney, Freedom Readers: The African-American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2011), pp. 201-202

An excerpt of the poem “Harvard Square” is printed below. You can access the full poem, in Jones’s collection The Sylvan Cabin, on Project Gutenberg, as well as the volume by Kerlin cited above.

“Weep not, my son, thy way is hard,
Thy weary journey long—
But thus I choose my favorite bard
To sing my sweetest song.
I’ll strike the key-note of my art
And guide with tend’rest care,
And breathe a song into thy heart
To honor Harvard Square.

“I called old Homer long ago,
And made him beg his bread
Through seven cities, ye all know,
His body fought for, dead.
Spurn not oppression’s blighting sting,
Nor scorn thy lowly fare;
By them I’ll teach thy soul to sing
The songs of Harvard Square.

“I placed great Dante in exile,
And Byron had his turns;
Then Keats and Shelley smote the while,
And my immortal Burns!
But thee I’ll build a sacred shrine,
A store of all my ware;
By them I’ll teach thy soul to sing
A place in Harvard Square.”   — Edward Smyth Jones, “Harvard Square” (1910)

Teodolinda Barolini interview in Corriere della Sera (May 2020)

In May 2020, Paolo di Stefano interviewed Teodolinda Barolini for the Corriere della Sera, on how and why to read Dante in the 21st century. Below, an excerpt from the interview, which can be read in full here:

Corriere: “Secondo lei quale aspetto di Dante può affascinare di più un lettore giovane del nostro tempo?”

Barolini: “Il fatto che Dante è un uomo che ha voglia di capire, come Ulisse. Mentre Virgilio nel II libro dell’Eneide squalifica Ulisse come fraudolento, Dante trova il lato positivo di Ulisse in Orazio e soprattutto in quella bellissima espressione di Cicerone che, nel De finibus, definisce la sua discendi cupiditas. Il Convivio comincia con la frase di Aristotele: ‘Tutti li uomini naturalmente desiderano di sapere.’ Ecco, è la brama di sapere il vero motore di Dante.”

Corriere: “Come leggere Dante a scuola?”

Barolini: “Il modo più utile è prendere il testo alla lettera. Basterebbe far leggere ai ragazzi il racconto, avendo fiducia nella narratività della Commedia. Io mi dispero quando arrivo a Petrarca per far capire ai giovani quanto siano squisite quelle poesie, questo sì è un problema. Ma non ci si può disperare di fronte alla Commedia che è un grande motore narrativo che trascina tutti con sé.”   — “Dante, un ribelle. Ora leggiamolo.” Interview of Teodolinda Barolini by Paolo di Stefano. Corriere della Sera (May 31, 2020)

Dante Micheaux wins 2019 Four Quartets Poetry Prize for Circus

“Congratulations to Dante Micheaux who has been awarded the prestigious Four Quartets Poetry Prize for his 2018 collection, Circus.

[. . .]

“Circus was selected as the winner by judges Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Carmen Giménez Smith, and Rosanna Warren, whose citation reads: ‘How right that this poet’s first name should be Dante. For his Circus is a Comedy: a savage comedy, lacerating dialects, fingering wounds, looking for loves right and wrong in the crevices of history and of humiliated bodes. And yet, and yet. His language exults, triumphs, and freely rummages in the treasuries of the Bible, Baudelaire, Whitman, Eliot, Baraka, and Mahalia Jackson, taking what it needs, making it his sovereign own, a wrested blessing. Congratulations, Dante Micheaux, on your astonishing Circus.'”   — Dan Sheehan, Lit Hub (May 1, 2019)

James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village” (1955)

James Baldwin, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1955

“For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modem world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory—but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.”   –James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” from Notes of a Native Son (1955)

Read the full essay here.

JFK’s Favorite Quote: “The hottest places in Hell…”

“One of President Kennedy’s favorite quotations was based upon an interpretation of Dante’s Inferno. As Robert Kennedy explained in 1964, ‘President Kennedy’s favorite quote was really from Dante, “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”‘ This supposed quotation is not actually in Dante’s work, but is based upon a similar one. In the Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgil, on their way to Hell, pass by a group of dead souls outside the entrance to Hell. These individuals, when alive, remained neutral at a time of great moral decision. Virgil explains to Dante that these souls cannot enter either Heaven or Hell because they did not choose one side or another. They are therefore worse than the greatest sinners in Hell because they are repugnant to both God and Satan alike, and have been left to mourn their fate as insignificant beings neither hailed nor cursed in life or death, endlessly travailing below Heaven but outside of Hell.”   –“John F. Kennedy’s Favorite Quotations: Dante’s Inferno,” from the JFK Library

For more, see Deborah Parker’s essay “The Historical Presidency: JFK’s Dante,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 48.2 (June 2018): 357-372.

The frequently misattributed quotation was also cited by Martin Luther King, Jr., in a 1967 address on the Vietnam War (see here).

Martin Luther King, Jr., on Nonviolence (March 31, 1968)

“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.   Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” Address delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (March 31, 1968)

Read the full transcript at the website of the King Institute, Stanford University.

The image above comes from here, courtesy of the DC Public Library.

Martin Luther King, Jr., on “The hottest places in hell…” (April 15, 1967)

“I come to participate in this significant demonstration today because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this mobilization because I cannot be a silent onlooker while evil rages. I am here because I agree with Dante, that: ‘The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.‘ In these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, there is no greater need than for sober thinking, mature judgment, and creative dissent.” [. . .]  –Martin Luther King, Jr., Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (April 15, 1967)

Read the full address here.

Images from the day of the address, including the image pictured at right, can be viewed here.

The frequently misattributed quotation was also cited multiple times in John F. Kennedy’s speeches (see here).

Langston Hughes, “Harlem’s Bitter Laughter” (October 2, 1948)

“Harlem, the world’s largest urban Negro community, can sometimes laugh at the dog-gonest things. But its laughter is often a bitter laughter — the kind of laughter that, I imagine, reverberates through Dante’s hell when the devil suddenly slips on his own hot pavements and burns his sitter-downer.”   –Langston Hughes, “Harlem’s Bitter Laughter” (October 2, 1948), cited in Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender: Essays on Race, Politics, and Culture (1942-62), ed. Christopher C. De Santis (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1995), pp. 113-114