2020 has been a difficult year for us all. A few weeks ago, South African literature lost a towering figure: the novelist, poet and scholar Stephen Gray, whom I had the honor of calling a mentor and friend. I wrote a remembrance of this extraordinary man recently for the South African website LitNet.
The “African History” part of this website’s brief has been sorely neglected this year owing to my comprehensive exams, but I hope to change all that this summer, having more time on my hands. I’m particularly excited to share the link below, the first peer-reviewed article of my graduate career. It’s been a long time coming, and it focuses on themes I’ve already written a bit about on this site: the early 20th century satirist Stephen Black, and his work’s parallels with Leon Schuster’s post-apartheid films. The link to a free PDF will expire when enough people click on it, but if you have access to the South African Theatre Journal through a university library it should not be difficult to access it that way.
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or observations on the paper; any and all opinions are welcome! Thanks once again to everyone who helped make this a reality.
[This is the first in a series I’m writing on my research visit to Austin. Once they’re posted, the links to subsequent articles will be posted here]
For those of you who don’t know, a little less than a week ago I returned from a brief trip to Austin, Texas. It went splendidly and put me in pole position for my journey to South Africa later this month. The object of the trip was research: I was in Austin to have a look at manuscripts and other records in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center for Humanities Research at the University of Texas, which is one of the leading institutions in the country for literary research. Housed in a boxy midcentury building that reminds me of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Center houses material from writers from Amos Tutuola to David Foster Wallace and everything in between; they even have an original Gutenberg Bible in their collection. The reading room on the second floor of the building is gorgeous, and the Center’s staff were all knowledgeable and eager to help me access the collections I sought. Over the next couple of weeks I hope to write more about that specific research, and in particular what I learned by going through the voluminous Herman Charles Bosman collection (one of the Center’s specializations is South African literature). However, as I’m still making my way through Stephen Gray’s excellent biography of Bosman, Life Sentence, I thought this week I’d focus more on my impressions of Austin in the hope of advising anyone out there on the internet who’s mulling a trip of their own. So, without further ado and at the risk of being clickbait-y, here are my Top Ten Tips for visiting Austin.
1. Score Some Brisket: From the moment my plane first touched down in Texas, I had a vision of loveliness in my mind. Having grown up on the East Coast in Virginia and North Carolina where pork is king, I was eager from the get-go to see what Texas had to offer in the way of barbecue. Meat eaters can rest assured that a fine beef brisket sandwich, with melted fat running like the Mississippi delta over expanses of tender muscle with a spicy rub and a touch of tangy sauce; well that’s nothing less than a religious experience right there, and it does not disappoint. Be warned, however: barbecue is a midday food in Austin, not a dinnertime delight. I had my first brisket (and it was delicious) at Freedmen’s Bar, near where I was staying. It was excellent (and the bar boasts an impressive selection of whiskies to go with your meal), but many of the classic Austin barbecue joints close well before dinnertime. A case in point is House Park Bar-B-Que, which has been smoking meat in the same humble pit off West Twelfth Street since 1943. The brisket sandwich is to die for (as well as the beans, for that matter), but it’s only open from 11:00 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. on weekdays, so plan ahead.
2. See The Bats: On my second night in Austin, I had more time and more energy to venture south of the U.T. campus towards downtown (the Harry Ransom Center is at Twenty-First Street, while Sixth Street is the unrivaled center of nightlife in the city. I took a pleasantly circuitous route through the grounds of the massive Texas State Capitol, ending on Congress Street, and decided to walk all the way to Lady Bird Lake, which runs through the heart of Austin. A couple of blocks before the bridge, I noticed a long line of people crowded onto the sidewalk of the bridge. Knowing Austin’s reputation as a music town but unaware of the bridge’s significance, I assumed it had something to do with an open air concert. Pleased at my good luck, I hastened to the bridge but amid the picnic blankets clustered on the south bank of lake I saw no sign of any musicians.
I was still in luck, however, because underneath the Congress Avenue bridge there live almost a million Mexican free-tailed bats who were, at that moment, poised to emerge en masse just after sunset to hunt. According to Bat Conservation International, the bats nesting in the arches beneath just this one bridge eat between ten and twenty thousand pounds of insects per night, which is an extraordinary feat by any measure. In fact, the bats of the Congress Avenue bridge constitute the largest urban bat colony in the world. I chalked the nickname “Bat City” up to the general “Keep Austin Weird” mentality; that Friday night I learned just how ignorant I was.
3. Get Outside: Austin is not the most beautiful city on the planet. Like many other American cities, particularly in the South, it is a sprawling, suburban place, with large surface parking lots even downtown. That said, the city’s leadership should be commended for their terrific investments in the city’s green spaces. From the lovely Shoal Creek Greenway that winds its way towards the lake from the north past playgrounds and picnic areas to the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike trails surrounding Lady Bird Lake, trails offer an outstanding way to get a feel for the central Texas landscape. As an East Coaster, I was fascinated by the plants and birdlife in this comparatively warm and dry atmosphere, where watercourses can rise from barely a trickle to a roaring cascade within a matter of hours. From Butler Park and Auditorium Shores on the south side to Zilker Park (the crown jewel of the Austin park system) to the west, wide paths and pedestrian bridges, kayak launches and wide green lawns (at least in early June) dot the shores of Lady Bird Lake, and reminded me strongly of the James River Park system in downtown Richmond. The trails of Austin are a wonderful way to take in the rhythm of city life, particularly in the early evening, and if I had more time in town I would have been sure to check out the botanical gardens in Zilker Park and the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, which I assume would have been in rare form given the weather and the time of year (since the Ransom Center was open until 5:00 P.M. each day I was in town, I didn’t get a chance to visit Zilker Park when these attractions were open). Then again, it’s always nice to have more reasons to come back.
4. Mind the Weather: Be warned that the weather in Austin can be fickle, particularly in late spring. I came to Texas expecting a dry heat, and I could not have been more mistaken. There were a couple of lovely sunny days towards the end of my stay, but for the most part it was both hot and humid (in the high 90s). It was also stormy, and while I was never caught in the rain, I had a couple of very close calls. Rain, when it fell, fell in sheets and city streets soon became overwhelmed by the cloudburst. Storms in Austin are very bad times to drive, and while I’m told it gets extremely hot as the summer marches on, I am also told the rain becomes less frequent. That means less humidity, which theoretically would make things more palatable. Considering how much Austin cuisine is meant to be consumed outdoors, from food truck arepas to alfresco barbecue, hydration is of critical, critical importance.
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What is the purpose of good teaching? What is the purpose of good scholarship? I have to confess that as I read yet another set of readings focused on the radical promise of digital humanities, I found myself wondering again about the position of “DH” vis a vis other academic institutions, and whether the current state of the discourse is as insular as the readings suggest. What is it about the digital that invites such fetishism, from both critics and allies? To echo Alan Liu and William G. Thomas III in their discussion of digital humanities “centers” at universities, the construction of digital humanities as a discipline outside “traditional” academic departments feels increasingly pernicious to me, otherizing and exoticizing what should be firmly in the main stream of humanities discourse.
This week I began to read a collection of plays by the influential South African actor and playwright Stephen Black. Black is remembered as the first professional actor in South African history, and his plays like Love and the Hyphen (1908), Helena’s Hope, Ltd. (1910), and Van Kalabas Does His Bit (1916) oscillate wildly between low brow comedy, melodrama, and sophisticated exploration of heady political themes in a country still reeling from the South African War (1899-1902), knit together for the first time as a single political unit. From questions of class and status to latent tensions between “Boer” and “Brit” to women’s suffrage and the political rights of black people (some of whom were allowed to vote in the Cape province but not elsewhere), Black’s plays and their wild popularity have a lot to tell us about early twentieth century South Africa, but because he never published them he was largely forgotten after his death in 1931.
I am able to read these plays, of course, because half a century later the literary critic Stephen Gray edited and published the volume I am reading. Working at the University of Witwatersrand in the dark days of the P.W. Botha administration, he introduces the collection by recounting his experience reviving Helena’s Hope, Ltd. at the university’s Performing Arts Centre. Mixed-race theatrical companies had been less than two years before, and Gray recounts vividly the process by which Helena’s Hope, Ltd. forced his actors to reconsider the history they had been taught in apartheid-era South African schools:
Although all of the players were Johannesburg residents, another first was encountering the hard fact that, after generations of education in the Transvaal…almost no information about, for example, the dispossession of the agriculturalists, the advent of taxation, the Battle of Johannesburg between Boer republican and British imperialist, the rise of capital in the city, the enfranchisement of White women and the disenfranchisement of Black men, the Land Acts preceding 1913, etc., etc,—it is a long list and these are all crucial issues in Black’s play, had seeped through to them. For them, coming to an understanding of these issues through the script and in the rehearsal room was tantamount to a re-education in their own immediate past.
Preparing and performing Helena’s Hope Ltd. challenged Gray and his actors to confront a history that had been buried, to resurrect on the stage a world of discourse that had been foreclosed and repressed by apartheid society. Far from a mere exercise in antiquarian drama, Gray’s troupe at Wits confronted a text that challenged their ideas about the past, present and future, all at the same time.
The readings for this week all stress the need for digital humanities to confront questions of difference. Whether emphasizing the potential contribution of Asian-American studies, intersectionality, or feminist research ethics, each reading is at pains to save digital humanities from itself (or a stereotype of itself, perhaps). Yet each of the ideas the readings laid out are each two to three decades old, largely innovations of the 1980’s cultural turn. What does it mean that even at this late stage scholars in the field of digital humanities are treating such established (if perhaps not predominant) ideas as potential paradigm shifts? Is digital humanities really so out of touch with current debates in the disciplines out of which it comes?
Certainly valuable work is being done, as the readings describe. Moya Bailey’s Misogynoir book project is a genuinely cutting edge contribution to our understanding of the online presence of trans women of color, and it provides a useful model for future activist scholarship engaging with online communities. But the tone of the readings for this week led me to wonder whether the prevalence of digital humanities “centers” outside academic departments contributes to a sense that DH is separate from debates and developments in more traditional disciplines, a disturbing suggestion that the much-vaunted interdisciplinarity of DH is, in some way, holding the field back, kin to the “retro-humanism” Roopika Risam’s article alludes to.
Stephen Gray’s presentation of Helena’s Hope, Ltd. exemplifies a multi-modal approach to scholarship and pedagogy that does not involve the digital. It does the things that we ask all great pedagogy (and great digital humanities scholarship to do): to present something not otherwise easily accessible in ways that challenge and illuminate our understanding of a particular context. Keeping digital humanities outside the mainstream of academic life maintains a unique, innovative culture of DHers across disciplines and departments, but at the cost of keeping DH marginalized, fighting for legitimacy among jealous, insecure university departments led by academics easily disposed to suspicion. The more readings I do for this class, the more I find the air of exceptionalism surrounding digital humanities to be damaging. The presence of computers does not necessarily mark a paradigm shift in disciplines that have always engaged in multimodal research and multimodal productions. Instead, digital humanities should embed itself in established disciplines; after all, it’s not as if DH spaces are the only ones facilitating interdisciplinary projects. In the long run, the goal must not be the creation of academic space for a sui generis digital humanities, but the full integration of digital methodologies and engagement with various fields in the humanities. If an entire field, such as women’s studies, needs to move in a more digital direction, that debate should be going on at the central venues of the field, not at the periphery or among an academic subculture. If digital humanities is valuable, and digital cultural criticism is necessary, there is no virtue in being on the sidelines. This is especially critical given the considerable expense of digital humanities projects. Only when great digital humanities scholarship is considered as simply great scholarship, and great digital pedagogy considered great pedagogy, will the fight be won.
- Black, Stephen, Three Plays, Stephen Gray, ed. (Craighall, South Africa: Adriaan Donker, 1984): 31.↩