Last Wednesday, I joined a group of graduates of OH's Humanity in Perspective course to talk about Linda Gregg's tough poem "The Shopping-Bag Lady." We were gathered for Thinking Community, a new summer workshop for alumni of HIP, a college-level humanities course for adults living at or near the poverty line who face barriers to continuing their education.
Gregg's poem ends, "the sound of the subway/filling and fading/in the most important place/we have yet devised." We read it aloud and tried to make sense of it—first what it meant on the page and then what it meant for us, in the room and in the world beyond. We wrote answers to the question, "What is the most important place we have yet devised?"
"The most important place we have yet devised," one participant, Sandy, said, "is a starting point of shared concern." As we read our responses aloud, one after the other, it was hard not to think that this—people in a room together, wondering and listening and holding ourselves to account—is community, that this is the most important place we have yet devised.
Today I found that Callie, another HIP graduate in Thinking Community, had left a different poem in my office mailbox. It was Langston Hughes's "Let America Be America Again," which feels on today's reading like Sandy's formulation brought to life. Hughes is clearly writing about America itself—the idea of it—as a starting point of shared concern. Hughes gives voice to so many that America has beaten down and then insists, "Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream."
That complicated vision of America—as hope and as disappointment, as perpetually struggling to be its own best self—is written into the existence of and reason for HIP. HIP students come from everywhere and bring with them a really remarkable range of gifts, but part of what qualifies them to be in the class is that, in Hughes' formulation, America has in one way or another not been America to them.
Thinking Community is intended to provide continuity for HIP alumni. Watching 2005 graduates talk with 2010 graduates and 2015 graduates, it's pretty clear that the workshop is hitting this mark. But it is also, as Sandy helped us see, a starting point: another attempt at beginning, a very important place that all of us, together, are devising.
Adam Davis is executive director of Oregon Humanities.
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