Nikki Giovanni at the JAAC

by Rachel Stallings, BU English Major

Poet, activist, author, and professor, Nikki Giovanni, addressed a full house on Monday, September 24, with an engaging and heartfelt Humanities Symposium presentation. Students filled the room of JAAC 4094, with many having to sit around the walls of the room, packed in to listen. She covered everything from her own personal life (followed by a flawless reading of her poem, “Tennessean By Birth”) to her desire for people to learn to love themselves, to her disdain for the story of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer (it encourages kids to bully each other!), to a final charge for those in the room to accept one another and end the hate that fuels racism.

Nikki Giovanni

Giovanni captured the audience with her lively presence and fluid approach to storytelling. She is a wonderful speaker and her readings of her poems flowed so naturally between personal stories that it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference between her natural spoken rhythm and her poetry. She approached each topic with a no-nonsense attitude, covering issues of environmental impact, racism, sexism, and rape, and even took strong political stands against many of the politicians currently in office. Despite the seriousness of her subject matter, her wit and sense of humor brought lots of laughter to the crowd and she even joked that she “wouldn’t get invited back” to speak after all of her strong political statements.

She made it a point to remind those in the audience to take care of themselves, telling the crowd that making mistakes is just a part of life and we ought to have more grace with ourselves. One example she gave was of weeds; they’re often seen as a nuisance, but in reality, they are something many people just “haven’t figured out what to do with yet.” She encouraged those in the crowd to never consider themselves as less than others because they don’t see themselves as a flower, but instead find a way to use their individual strengths to be the best version of themselves they could be.

After her animated and high energy presentation, she fielded a few questions from the audience. One student asked how Giovanni might respond to someone who disagrees with or feels victimized by her strong political views, and she encouraged the student to open up her perspective and understand that all of us are part of one another, we’re all connected in some way. She kindly explained that we must learn to love and accept people if we hope to end all of the hate in the world, which was a fitting end to her presentation.

Image credit: Sam Simpkins, University Photographer

“Matto Grosso: The Last Terrestrial Frontier

by Henry Gregson, BU English Major

There are many unheard of adventures inspired by famous explorers of previous eras such as Ronald Amundsen (leader of the Antarctic expedition) or James Cook (British Naval captain). In Dr. Eric Hobson’s presentation at the Belmont Humanities Symposium on September 21st, he illuminated one of these overshadowed yet groundbreaking events in his discussion about the Brazilian Matto Grosso expedition. He laid out the historical context and setting of the late 1920s and early 1930s then presented the story chronologically. The room drew closer to Hobson as if he were pacing in front of a campfire about to relay a horrific tale instead of casually engaging with students and conveying the importance of this pioneering event.

The idea of the Matto Grosso expedition was spearheaded by wealthy descendent to E.R. Johnson (co-founder of the Victor Talking Machine Co.), E.R. Fenimore Johnson. The idea was that the era of groundbreaking explorations into unknown territory and wild adventures in the jungle were coming to an end, but this area of Matto Grasso was considered one of the last unexplored frontiers with native languages and cultures. Johnson was a filmmaker in his spare time and he told newspapers that the expedition had a far more scientific intention than to just explore. The party members wanted to create the first film with synchronized sound as well as film the infamous adventurer Sasha Seimal spearing a jaguar.

matto grosso

Hobson related the wild misadventures of the inexperienced crew and how they poorly navigated through the jungle and crafted a make-shift coliseum to film their long anticipated jaguar fight, only to realize their film equipment wasn’t fast enough to capture the jaguar’s speed. Some of their other equipment got wet on the journey and molded, so the filmmakers eventually abandoned their secondary idea of an action-adventure, Hollywood movie.

What they did produce was the first “talkie”, on-site documentary film – Matto Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1933). Unfortunately for the crew and Johnson, they returned from their wild expedition soon after the stock market crashed and the entertainment industry was very selective about which films to publish. While the film’s budget was not even close to recouped, Johnson and the crew accomplished many ‘firsts’ in history.

matto grosso 2

During the making of the documentary, the crew helped the first ever Brazilian general to fly. The film itself was the first with synchronized sound and revolutionized the way audio was reproduced in a film. Furthermore, the crew showed that even naïve “explorers” could make history. Hobson’s casual, campfire-style presentation of the historical event made it far more appealing to a student audience and I would look forward to hearing what else Dr. Hobson knows about these unsung adventurers.

Ending the Cycle of Canonical Silence

by Gray Bulla, BU English Major

At 5:00 on Thursday, September 20th, the room was full of chatter as people found their seats. At the front of the room, six people prepared for the performance they were about to give, with instruments such as the lute and a Baroque-period flute.


The interesting choice of instruments was because the audience would be hearing music throughout history, composed and performed (mostly) by women. The symposium was called “Listening to Voices Unheard,” and it was a fitting title: women, throughout the history of music, have been denied entrance to the musical canon.

Yvonne Kendall–playing the recorder and flute–told the audience her reason for this performance. She explained that “years ago, I bought a book solely because it existed.” That book was The Historical Anthology of Music By Women. It spans the Byzantine era all the way to the mid-1980’s. Kendall said that it angered her, that she spent so much time in school and yet studied so little music by women. It wasn’t a case of women not composing music, but of the sexism that has pushed women’s voices out of the musical narrative.

This sparked a decades-long project for Kendall, who researched the women discussed in the anthology, learning more and more about their lives and the music they composed. “The cycle of canonic silence would stop,” she proclaimed.

The program was a part of her life-long commitment to those women (and the men who helped raise awareness for them), but the commitment, she said, is no longer fueled by anger, but by celebration of the strength, wisdom, talent, and determination of these women.

The program performed music by women from all different eras–the Renaissance, Byzantine, Medieval, Romantic, and so on–as well as places–France, Scotland, Prussia, and others. Commentary, before each piece began, offered the composer’s name, a brief biography, and occasionally a story relevant to the song. The music they performed ranged from slow, melodic, and remorseful, to upbeat, joyous, and celebratory. The arrangement of each piece was almost as varied, the performers switching vocals, instruments, and even who read the composer’s introduction.

The performers were Yvonne Kendall on recorder and flute, Sarah Cote on viola, Tammy Rogers King on violin, Deidre Emerson on cello, Angela Carr Forsythe as soprano vocals, and Francis Perry on two different kinds of lutes (one of which, he joked, is “what it looks like when that other grows up”), in association with the Nashville Early Music Festival.

Nietzsche’s Philosophical Understanding of The Historical Past And Its Significance

By Wes Bullington, BU English Major

Dr. Paul S. Loeb is a philosopher and writer who has been a guest speaker at Belmont’s
Humanities Symposium for several years. Dr. Loeb spoke on Thursday September 20 at 4:00pm.

Dr. Paul S. Loeb

He began his talk by establishing why Nietzsche is important and how personal history has shaped his philosophical outlook. Nietzsche was not originally welcome in the philosophical community. His writings were seen as literary works, which gave him influence in that community. Later in his life, his political influence would rise above that of his literary influence in the face of a growing authoritarianism in Germany. It was only towards the end of Nietzsche’s life that he was finally seen as a philosophical great. Much of Loeb’s lecture came from direct analysis of Nietzsche’s writing. His book “On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life,” first published in 1874 and later revised, focuses on the growing sickness Nietzsche sees around him in Germany and the dangers of historical obsession. Nietzsche begins by establishing his credibility. He criticizes his own German culture and history. He claims that this right is given to him since he knows history. He studied the Greeks in antiquity and even further criticizes the Germans by comparing them to the Greeks. According to Nietzsche, Germany has studied itself in excess and now begins to lose its own culture.

He argues that humans are happy when they forget. In a state of happiness, the mind does not worry or think of the past. Everything in life is in flux and humans are the only creature capable of noticing and remembering this truth. Humans naturally forget but must make an effort to remember. Nietzsche argues that humans could not sleep and could not live if they were constantly remembering. Finally, Nietzsche presents a solution: youth. He believes that young people, the next generation are the only hope for mankind. He argues that an excess of history and science will only destroy what makes humans happy. Nietzsche supports religion and art, even if he does not personally believe in God, because these disciplines are crucial for the human to forget and just be. His argument condenses when considering knowledge or life. Nietzsche concludes that life must be chosen over knowledge since there would be no knowledge without life.

The audience at Belmont’s Symposium was extremely interested in Dr. Loeb’s talk.
Every eye was focused of Dr. Loeb and every ear carefully held on to each word. Students were diligently taking notes to follow the complex philosophical argument being made. The topics raised during the talk were provocative and after the lecture, many people hoped to ask questions to clarify points of the argument. Reactions were mixed considering the controversial topic. However, academic respect and support was clear throughout the Symposium.

Presenting and Representing the Past: “Where am I in this history?”

by Landry Chiles, BU English Major

At 10:00 on September 19th, in the Janet Ayers Academic Center, our three guest speakers met for a discussion panel. Dr. Gregory Hansen opened the  panel by telling us of his background. He is a Professor of Folklore Studies at Arkansas State University. He has worked in academia and the public sector. His interest in folklore first began as he observed “contemporary manifestations of folklore,” including urban legends such as “believing in rats at Kentucky Fried Chicken.” His interest would later shift to studying “contemporary forms of traditional culture” and “accounts of living history.”

L to R: Dr. Gregory Hansen, Dr. Martha Norkunas, and Dr. Gregory N. Reish

Dr. Norkunas is a Director of the Oral History Concentration in the Public History Department at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). She has a background in folklore as well and is an author of several books about oral, gender and race history. She read prepared comments which raised the question: what do we know about the past by listening to the individual life story?

Dr. Reish is the Director of Popular Music at MTSU. He is a musicologist; in which he dedicates his studies in the genre of bluegrass from an anthropologic perspective.

After the introductory panel ended, their discussion began. The first topic discussed was, “How does music and landscape function to maintain a scene of culture?” Dr. Hansen answered this question first, bringing up the purpose of a music venue, which functions as a cultural backdrop of a specific era or genre. Furthermore, he said that the most historically common venue was a home, where people at house parties would “roll the carpet up and put on some music to square-dance.” He also mentioned that the venue is analogous to a body representing music history; to extend this metaphor, then music itself would be the voice. Dr. Hansen’s final remark raised the idea of an experience created by a venue: “As you would walk through these venues or buildings of the past, you would essentially be walking in an enclosed museum that captures artifacts and anachronisms from another era.”

Dr. Norkunas raised a different aspect of landscape by first asking the question, “what do people mark as a sight or memory in the life of a community? Which of the things that are marked from the organic, cultural, and vibrant memory of a group’s oral tradition ultimately die?” She states that whenever we are alive, we are not actively marking details of these events or places into stone. She goes on to say that this is the same with culture groups, that when the life of a vibrant memory begins to disappear from a community, then we need to start marking the landscapes of where these memories occurred.

Dr. Reish then mentioned a struggle that his colleague is currently having. This colleague of his is attempting to find a photo of the facade of a venue on Jefferson Street in Nashville. This place, fifty years ago, was once a popular nightlife stop; he has hundreds of photos that have been taken inside the building. Dr. Reish claims that this is because nobody at the time was concerned with the importance of what the outside looked like, they merely cared for the shows going on inside. Despite the fact that this venue no longer exists, it was once a booming stop, but remembering and archiving buildings such as this one is problematic once the oral tradition tends to disappear.

This is a general thematic problem is one that historians face whenever attempting to catalog the past. Dr. Norkunas made the final comment for the event, telling the audience to be wary of commercial history. She said that in our capitalist past, are the only things that sold well the ones that will be remembered? She continues, “So if it sells, is it considered important? Also what constitutes events or locations from the past as worth noting? In the Tennessee State History Museum, women are notably left out, aside from the suffrage movement, but women have been so much more involved in history than just that.” The entire history of immigration to Nashville, ethnicities from dozens of other regions in the world, have been omitted, as well. She claims that this is problematic because since these groups have been left out of our museum, the questions of who they were, where they came from, and why they chose Nashville specifically are not asked. She then reminded us to always question, and ask, “Where am I in this history?”

The audience thanked our wonderful guests by applauding!

A Reflection of the Past

By Josie Needham, BU English Major

On Tuesday, September 18th at 5 p.m., Dr. Gregory Hansen from Arkansas State University began his presentation at Belmont University’s Humanities Symposium by evaluating the idea of values in each individual’s life then broadening into the topic of culturally accepted traditions and how past heritage and folklore have helped shaped the present. He introduced the common misconceptions of folklore and the lack of attention that people pay to it due to negative connotations in modern society. His own stories of being by the riverbank near his house, asking his father questions about not only the present, but rather the past sparked the advent of the discussion about beliefs and values that are carried out by word of mouth, customs, and literature.

Dr. Gregory Hansen

Dr. Hansen’s fascination with the concept of preserving heritage regardless of its representations, exemplifies his ultimate belief that rewriting the past would be a shameful thing to do. He mentioned the controversial statues in parks that revere previous generals who in fact, owned slaves. One audience member proposed the commonly argued idea that, “If the past is not how we want it to be, why do we represent it instead of destroying such monuments that offend others?” Dr. Gregory Hansen did not hesitate to answer and rather explained that regardless of he hurt it causes some, the past must be preserved in order to grow and develop for the future. His notion that traditions ranging from music and literature, to offensive symbols such as the confederate flag, are what have made the past, which is immutable. He believes that we need to accept the heritage that has been formative and continue to progress as a moral society. Preservation without destruction of the past that destroys heritage is crucial to move forward because it shows the truth in a light that is not necessarily out of reverence but rather as representation of what has happened. If history was destroyed, a platform to encourage reform would not exist and the mistakes from the past would remain less condemned.

Confederate Statues New Orleans
Statue of General Robert E. Lee being removed in New Orleans

Dr. Hansen did not fail to captivate the audience’s attention with his idea that the past is not changing but rather it is changing how the future will look. Many questions about the
offensiveness of the past carried through verbal and representational folklore and the pain it has caused on the present were asked and debated, but Dr. Hansen made it clear that condoning and accepting are two very different things. Heritage and folklore help the truth be revealed and altered without discounting for a better future.


“Challenge the Liars”: Fighting Holocaust Denial

by Taylor Hopper, BU English Major

On September 17th at 2:00 p.m. Dr. Douglas Bisson, a history professor at Belmont University, gave a presentation at the Humanities Symposium on the inside of the minds of Holocaust deniers and how to prove their ideas wrong. Throughout Dr. Bisson’s talk the room fell silent and the crowd sat in astonishment at the extensive amounts of deniers and how they formulate their arguments.

Dr. Douglas Bisson

Dr. Bisson opened with a quote from Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, “we must establish incredible events with credible evidence”, which summarizes the major theme of the talk; in order to prove the Holocaust deniers wrong we must find the credible evidence and know when to use it. According to Bisson, Holocaust denial is the “explicit repudiation of the fact of the extermination of six million Jews” and those who deny the Holocaust have a set of core beliefs. These core beliefs include claims that far fewer than six million people died in the Holocaust; that there were no gas chambers; that the extermination was not systematic; and that the holocaust in its definition was a myth. Bisson says that if Holocaust deniers can “disrupt the narrative [of the Holocaust] then they can achieve their goal.” After the Holocaust and the Nuremburg trials, it became illegal in thirteen nations to deny these events, yet Holocaust deniers still spread their lies and while the first deniers were the Nazis they now take the form of everyone from internet trolls to religious leaders and politicians..

According to Bisson, in order for us to prove these deniers wrong, we must use intentional and non-intentional evidence. Intentional evidence is considered to be narrative sources and non-intentional evidence is physical documents. For the case of Holocaust denial the Nazis destroyed most of the non-intentional evidence, so for many years the only evidence available was survivor testimonies and Nazi confessions during the Nuremburg trials. However, later in history 346 death books, Nazi records of the deaths in the different internment camps, and the Kalendari, a day-to-day record of the actions in Auschwitz, were discovered and allowed for the intentional evidence to be proven credible. While both of these types of death documents survived, the death books were collections of death certificates of registered prisoners that had names and causes of death; however, the causes of death were mostly fictitious and did not include deaths from the gas chambers. The Kalendari, in contrast, had exact time and place of every movement inside of the death camp and because of this we can get an accurate estimate of just how many people were systematically murdered throughout the Holocaust. Bisson used these texts to show the audience how to shut down the deniers and show them the facts.

The subject of Holocaust denial and the arguments and evidence that comes along with it is so vast that any summary of it would be an injustice; however, it’s enough to say that Bisson blew my mind in less than an hour. Bisson’s talk was full of passion and incredible wisdom and for forty minutes the crowd sat in silent disbelief that ignorant deniers still exist prevalently in our world today. We must listen to Bisson and take his advice, because we cannot “passively accept lies, but [we must] challenge liars”; the only way Holocaust deniers will be shut down is with the historical truth.