By Alethea Thompson
For my middle school years, I attended a school that can claim Oprah Winfrey as an alumni. Much like Armonia College is the evolution of the Light Aspect at Force Academy, East Literature Magnet School (ELMS) was the evolution of East Nashville Middle & High School. I got to stand on the same stage that I’m sure Oprah stood on once before to deliver a speech to her classmates, or watched as a speaker spoke about something they were very passionate about. In knowing that Oprah had been to this same school, I always felt that the focus of the ELMS (Literary Arts) was very appropriate. While I was there, and even after I left for a new High School, I learned a great deal about the value of literary arts from ELMS. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of literature as a means of moving society towards a greater purpose.
Literature takes on many forms, it can be fiction or reality. It can be on paper, or produced in a way that can reach an audience through voice and action. Performed in person on a stage, in film, or on an audio format. It can be in a media platform, or in a book. Whatever form it takes, literature has had a special place in the life of man.
“Literature not only represents to us our world but it also shows us ways in which we can change the world or adapt to changes which have already taken place without our realization. Literature’s cognitive dimension helps us cope with the current as well as future challenges by changing the way we think about ourselves, our society and those who are excluded from or marginalized within our society” (Mack, 2012)
Journalists may be tasked with telling us about things going on around the world. We often think of journalism in terms of political issues at the local, state, federal and international levels. But Journalism is used as a method to call attention to a problem, and in turn hopefully someone that has the ability to do something about the problem will see the injustices and work in a solution- whether it is by film, radio or written documentation in publications. Sometimes the target audience is the public, while other times the audience is a government authority. In the 1960s, video footage with a narrator speaking out against the sights in the video was sent to the United Nations with the explicit purpose of calling attention to a horrific slave trade bust that had occurred. The footage showed as a British soldier demonstrated on camera the devices that some recently detained slavers had used on children to reduce their condition to a point that people passing them by would take compassion upon them (2015). The narrator used his words carefully to cause listeners to feel as though they were somehow responsible for the what was going on in this part of the world. Using statements like “the duty of the civilized world” (2015), or “the world that calls itself civilized and feels smugly at peace with it’s conscience”(2015) were ways to call the ethical human being to action.
Speeches painted with beautiful imagery, such as the famous “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King, Jr. were meant to inspire people to seek out a world that is devoid of social injustices. Prominent figures used written letters to express their deeply held values, and give credence to why the do things. One such letter that often gets missed in talking about American Policy is one written to the the Danbury Baptists by Thomas Jefferson. In the letter he explained that the reason he would not establish Christian specific holidays was because he felt that the best policy was “a Wall of Separation” (now referred to as “Separation of Church and State”). This letter, which acknowledged the individual value of religious practices by making the bold statement “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God…” (Jefferson, 1802), Jefferson befriended the Danbury Baptists and this later became the general policy when it was invoked in Reynolds v. United States in 1878 and McCollum v. Board of Education in 1947-1948 (Hutson, 1998).
In fiction, authors are allowed to explore the very depths of problems that exist in the world around us. In Middle School I read books such as “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” by Mildred Taylor and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell. Vastly different in their messages, both offered a vibrant method of exploring trust issues from very different prospectives. In “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry”, Taylor explores the mistrust that comes from abundant racism, whereas O’Dell explores the idea of mistrust as it comes from isolation. Where Taylor leaves the story open to show that racism continues in her story, O’Dell’s story is given a happy ending when the main character finds that there is value in accepting the society as where her future lies. These stories, when really read for the value they contain, can tell us a great deal about our place in the world. They teach us to value things that we might otherwise not feel compelled to. O’Dell teaches the value perseverance, friendship, and independence. Taylor’s story teaches the value of compassion, self-respect, and hope.
On the stage and in film, directors and writers show us stories that can exploit realities. Shakespeare used his creative mind to produce stories that many say painted the political issues of it’s time. But beyond his life time, his works have been credited as influencing people to both negative actions, such as inspiring the assassination of President Lincoln (Post Staff Report, 2011) and positive actions, such as inspiring African-American actor Paul Robeson who “prepared the way for the social-justice movement” (Post Staff Report, 2011). The entertaining story of Broadway Musical “Chicago” shows how we polarize to celebrities and miss their flaws, or get distracted from finding the truth in favor of the drama. Even our own community’s inspiration “Star Wars” worked to inspire a group of people which strives to improve the world around them.
The Literary Arts play a profound role in shaping society. About 2 years after I left ELMS, 9-11 happened. Although the school was not directly impacted by the events of 9/11, they saw an opportunity to produce a music video on VHS that would show their solidarity with other students in New York City. Defense of others comes in many forms, we can defend people against themselves by showing them better ways to live, or simply displaying to them that they are not alone. We can defend people by launching pre-emptive strikes against abstract concepts that seek to destroy and dismantle society. We can defend them by attacking the very ideals that harm them in the here and now. We do this by tapping into the the power of words, whether they are spoken or written. But as Jedi, we have to recognize what so many literary geniuses before us have understood: You cannot merely say what you think, you have to master the art of words and delivery to reach into the very soul of your audience.
(2015). The Roots of African Slave Trade: who started it, and who stopped it (Documentary). Retrieved July 18, 2017, from https://youtu.be/iTDEgr0RLso?t=10m20s
Hutson, J. (1998). ‘A Wall of Separation’: FBI Help’s Restore Jefferson’s Obliterated Draft. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danbury.html
Jefferson, T. (1802). Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html
Mack, M. (2012). How literature changes the way we think. London: Continuum.
Post Staff Report. (2011). Great Shakes. Retreived from http://nypost.com/2011/05/08/great-shakes-2/