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A prolific writer on sociology, history, economics, and politics, W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most extraordinary minds of American and global history. His life traced an incredible arc; he was born three years after the end of the Civil War and died on the eve of the March on Washington. In 1903, he penned the famous line that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” Du Bois was a formative voice for many of the people who gave us the civil rights movement and for all of us navigating the still-unfolding, unfinished business of racial justice now. We bring his life and ideas into relief through three conversations with people who were inspired by him.

The poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine says every conversation about race doesn’t need to be about racism. But she says all of us — and especially white people — need to find a way to talk about it, even when it gets uncomfortable. Her bestselling book, Citizen: An American Lyric, catalogued the painful daily experiences of lived racism for people of color. Claudia models how it’s possible to bring that reality into the open — not to fight, but to draw closer. And she shows how we can do this with everyone, from our intimate friends to strangers on airplanes.

Tracy K. Smith has a deep interest in “the kind of silence that yields clarity” and “the way our voices sound when we dip below the decibel level of politics.” She’s a welcome voice on the little leaps of the imagination that can restore us. She’s spent the past year traversing our country, listening for all of this and drawing it forth as the U.S. Poet Laureate. Krista spoke with her at the invitation of New York’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, which has been in communal exploration on creating a just and redeemed social fabric.

“If you can’t talk about something, you can’t think about something. I’ve worked with students who could barely let themselves think, they were so scared of thinking the wrong thing.”

This conversation was inspired by Eula Biss’s stunning New York Times essay “White Debt,” which had this metaphor at its core: ”The state of white life is that we’re living in a house we believe we own but that we’ve never paid off.” She spoke with us in 2016 and we aired this last year, but we might just put this conversation out every year, as we’re all novices on this territory. Eula Biss had been thinking and writing about being white and raising white children in a multi-racial world for a long time. She helpfully opens up words and ideas like “complacence,” “guilt,” and something related to privilege called “opportunity hoarding.” To be in this uncomfortable conversation is to realize how these words alone, taken seriously, can shake us up in necessary ways — and how the limits of words make these conversations at once more messy and more urgent.

The emerging science of implicit bias is one of the most promising fields for animating the human change that makes social change possible. The social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji is one of its primary architects. She understands the mind as a “difference-seeking machine” that helps us order and navigate the overwhelming complexity of reality. But this gift also creates blind spots and biases, as we fill in what we don’t know with the limits of what we do know. This is science that takes our grappling with difference out of the realm of guilt, and into the realm of transformative good.

We were introduced to Lucas Johnson by the great civil rights elder Vincent Harding. He said that this young man embodies the genius of nonviolence for our century — nonviolence not as a withholding of violence, but as a way of being present. And it was a great pleasure to bring him together with Rami Nashashibi, a rising visionary and kindred force in the Muslim world. Lucas is based in Amsterdam. Rami’s center of gravity is the South Side of Chicago. They have much to teach us all about the lived practicalities and tensions of the “strong, demanding love” to which Martin Luther King, Jr. called the world of his time — a call that is echoing again in ours.

“Race is a little bit like gravity,” john powell says: experienced by all, understood by few. He is a refreshing, redemptive thinker who counsels all kinds of people and projects on the front lines of our present racial longings. Race is relational, he reminds us. It’s as much about whiteness as about color. He takes new learnings from the science of the brain as forms of everyday power. “We don’t have to imagine doing things one at a time,” he says. “It’s not, ‘how do we get there?’ It’s, ‘how do we live?’”

Go to the doctor and they won’t begin to treat you without taking your history — and not just yours, but that of your parents and grandparents before you. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson points this out as she reflects on her epic work of narrative non-fiction, The Warmth of Other Suns. She’s immersed herself in the stories of the Great Migration, the diaspora of six million African Americans to the north of the U.S. in the 20th century. It’s a carrier of untold histories and truths that help make sense of human and social challenges newly visible at the heart of our life together.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a poetic journalist and a defining voice of our times. He’s with us in a conversation that is joyful and hard and kind, soaring and down-to-earth all at once. He spoke with Krista as part of the 2017 Chicago Humanities Festival before an audience of over 1,500 people, black and white, young and old. To a teacher in the audience who asks how to speak to the young now about the complexity of our world, he says, “Give me the tools. Arm me. Allow me to be able to understand why. That’s not hope, but I think that’s the sort of perspective I would’ve come from, at that age.”

The civil rights icon Ruby Sales names “a spiritual crisis of white America” as a calling of this time. During the days of the movement, she learned to ask the question, “Where does it hurt?” It’s a question we scarcely know how to ask in public life now, but it gets at human dynamics that we are living and reckoning with. A probing conversation at a convening of 20 theologians seeking to reimagine the public good of theology for this century.

In life, in families, we shine a light on the past to live more abundantly now. In this conversation at the Citizen University annual conference, historian Annette Gordon-Reed and painter Titus Kaphar lead us in an exploration of that as a public adventure. She is the historian who introduced the world to Sally Hemings and the children she had with Thomas Jefferson, and so realigned a primary chapter of the American story with the deeper, more complicated truth. He collapses timelines on canvas, and created iconic images after Ferguson. Both are reckoning with history in order to repair the present.

Black Lives Matter co-founder and artist Patrisse Cullors presents a luminous vision of the spiritual core of Black Lives Matter and a resilient world in the making. She joins Dr. Robert Ross, a physician and philanthropist on the cutting edge of learning how trauma can be healed in bodies and communities. A cross-generational reflection on evolving social change.

Marilyn Nelson has taught poetry and contemplative practice to college students and to West Point cadets. She gives winsome voice to forgotten people from history, shining a light on the complicated ancestry that can help us in what she calls “communal pondering.” To sit with Marilyn Nelson is to gain a newly spacious perspective on what that might mean — and on why, in this troubled moment, Americans young and old are turning to poetry with urgency.

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