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Humanities Symposium


Title: A More Perfect Union: Dialogue and Democracy
Dates: Monday, September 28 through Friday, October 2nd

The 2020 Fall Humanities Symposium, now in its 19th year, will investigate the essential relationship between democracy and dialogue in bringing to fruition the “more perfect union” envisioned even if imperfectly by our founding fathers, how the making of such a union can only come about and be sustained through a constantly occurring process, an “act…not a state” as Congressman Lewis so aptly put it in his last words. Through virtual dialogues and presentations our online symposium will consider how such dialogues occur, past and present, in the US and globally, through attention to language, imagery, symbol, story, and space. Presentations and papers by guest scholars and by Belmont faculty will consider such questions as what calls us toward community and what deepens divides? How does context, including public space, historical or cultural situation, or political persuasion foster or depress divergent voices? What is the lasting impact of achievements that have expanded democratic space? We undertake this topic in the year when we recognize the 150th anniversary of the 15th amendment, eliminating race as a criteria for enfranchising men, and the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, enfranchising women, in which Tennessee played a crucial role.

Click here for the full program and Zoom links for all events.


Featured Speakers

Name: David Cunningham

Date/Time:  Tuesday, September 29, 2pm CDT 
Title: The Weight of the Past: Engaging Legacies of White Supremacy and Racial Injustice 

Description: Washington University sociologist David Cunningham will explore the dimensions of division and dialogue, place and space in relation to historical and contemporary racial violence.  With an eye on ongoing struggles over the memorialization of the racialized past through monuments and the commemorative landscape in America, Dr. Cunningham will discuss how the legacies of racial injustice continue to invade and inform our spaces, discourses, and worldviews. 

Speaker Bio: David Cunningham is Professor and Chair of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. His research, focused on racial contention and its legacies, has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. Professor Cunningham's past work centers on the Ku Klux Klan, in particular the complex roles that the KKK played in various communities throughout the 1960s and its enduring impacts on contemporary voting patterns and crime rates. His book Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan has been featured on NPR's Fresh Air, CBS News, the Miller Center Forum, and in a PBS American Experience documentary film. Ongoing projects examine (1) the organization and enforcement of segregation under Jim Crow, (2) the enduring legacies of racist violence, (3) the policing of organized white supremacy, and (4) the recent wave of conflicts around Confederate monuments and other sites of contested memory. An instructor and Executive Board member for Washington University’s Prison Education Project, he has received multiple awards for teaching and mentorship, as well as the 2019 Robin M. Williams Award for Distinguished Contributions to Scholarship, Teaching, and Service given by the Peace, War, and Social Conflict Section of the American Sociological Association.


Name:  Susan Neiman
Date/Time:  September 29, 3pm CDT
Title:  Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil  

In her recent book Learning from the Germans, philosopher Susan Neiman explores the story of the halting, difficult, and ongoing steps Germans took and are taking in their efforts to acknowledge and atone for the crimes of the Holocaust, relating their experience to the challenges and actions of American social justice advocates confronting our own violent history and the legacy of slavery, an issue which is at the core of all aspects of our national dialogue today. In a conversational format moderated by Belmont’s David Dark, Neiman will explore some of the central ideas of her book the purpose of which is not comparing two evils but rather seeing in the German process of coming to terms with its past hope for contemporary Americans working to engage us in a long-overdue national process of our own.   

Brief Bio:  Susan Neiman is Director of the Einstein Forum, located in Potsdam, Germany. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Neiman studied philosophy at Harvard and the Freie Universität Berlin, and was professor of philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv University. Her previous works include: Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin; The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant; Evil in Modern Thought; Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists;  and Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age.  


Name:  Rachel Louise Martin, Ph.D.
Date/Time:  Wednesday, September 30th 2pm
Title: "A Mother's Advice Is Always Safest:" The Woman Who Wrote the Letter That Changed American History

Description:  When the fight for ratification moved to Tennessee, many suffragettes were ready to write off the amendment. They believed there was no hope for victory in the South. Then Febb Burn, a widowed mother in Appalachia, sent an eight-page letter to her son Representative Harry T. Burn, flipping his vote. Febb Burn's story challenged (and challenges) the idea that there is a solid, conservative, rural, white South, though there were a significant number of disenfranchised Southerners. She also reminds us that world-changing reform doesn't happen because famous people behave heroically; change occurs when thousands of ordinary people living in quiet backwaters decide to fight for the American dream.  Illustrated talk followed by Q&A.

Brief Bio: Rachel Louise Martin, Ph.D. is a writer and public intellectual. She earned a doctorate in women’s and gender history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  Her work has appeared in O Magazine, Oxford American, The Atlantic online and CityLab, and she is a guest columnist for Catapult. She has been featured on the BBC’s Food Chain, KCRW’s Good Food and the Michelle Meow Show.  Her essay “How Hot Chicken Really Happened” was included in Cornbread Nation 2015: The Best of Southern Food Writing. Her first book, Hot, Hot Chicken: A Nashville Story, will be out in Spring 2021.



Name: Dr. Joy Jordan-Lake
Date/time:  Thurs., Oct. 1, 10:30 am
Title:  “Unearthing the Past, Rebuilding the Present:  the Role of Fiction in Addressing History, Re-Imagining Human Community and Enacting Social Change”

In this interactive session, we will look at several examples of novels in classic literature concerned with social justice and how they attempted to bring about seismic change—or at least a shift in readers’ perspectives. Despite the flaws contemporary readers can find with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe powerfully used the vehicle of story to make her case for abolition. So effective was her persuasion, in fact, that numerous other authors attempted to imitate her tropes and plot devices for the pro-slavery cause—with chilling results. Analyzing such deeply traditional images as mothers with children or romantic courtships, we’ll investigate how certain authors have employed these to suggest a radically different political or economic order. Comparing the potential of fiction to whitewash the past (e.g. Gone with the Wind) or lay it bare (e.g. Toni Morrison’s Beloved), we’ll consider various classic and contemporary American novels, their part in the ongoing dialogue of democracy, and their role, at least potentially, in giving voice to a healthy, thriving, increasingly diverse culture.      

Brief Bio:   Focusing on the narratives, letters and novels of enslaved women of color and white women of the mid-19th century, Joy Jordan-Lake earned her Ph.D. in English Literature from Tufts University, as well as an earlier masters from a theological seminary. Her ongoing interest in the role of fiction in social change led to a doctoral dissertation which became her book Whitewashing Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Nineteenth-Century Women Novelists Respond to Stowe, published by Vanderbilt University Press.  Joy is also the author of the bestselling novel A Tangled Mercy, a dual timeline story set in Charleston, South Carolina, and focusing on the 1822 Denmark Vesey revolt and its modern-day aftermath, including the 2015 Emanuel AME shooting. A forthcoming historical mystery set at the Biltmore Estate in the tumultuous 1890s involves a war of ideas over immigration, racial injustice, glaring wealth inequalities and other issues strikingly relevant to contemporary cultural debates. Her seven other books include Blue Hole Back Home, winner of the 2009 Christy Award for Best First Novel and the Common Book selection for several universities, as well as several works of nonfiction and a children’s picture book.