2021 Year-end dinner and conversation at Burruss

Don Chambers and I made our way into Burruss Correctional last night with a cart of homemade food—tacos, an elaborate green salad, six kinds of fresh fruit, side dishes, and cupcakes—for the annual celebration dinner. Don’s course on art history concludes the men’s accredited, year-long study of five college courses in the humanities.

Don and I were privileged to be two of Burruss’s teaching faculty in 2021 along with professors Corrie Claiborne, Winfield Murray, and Josh Mousie.

As we ate dinner, we all shared a work of art that inspired us, and Don taught us the Irish concept of “thin places,” when the veil between us and the other world lifts. The images of our thin-place experiences are below.

Then each scholar quoted (from memory) a text that transformed them: writers like Antonio Gramsci, Langston Hughes, Vincent van Gogh, W.E.B. du Bois, Martin Luther King, and Assata Shakur. I wish you could have heard the words directly from the men at Burruss, but I’ve transcribed their quotes, below.

Thank you to everyone who made this year possible!

Mark: Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Ryan: Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, 21 July 1882

What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.

Buford: spoken word,

and if there ain’t no beauty / you got to make some beauty

Larry, Martin Luther King, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Kaden: Vincent van Gogh’s letters

Elijah, Vincent van Gogh to Wilhelmina van Gogh, 30 April 1889

As for me, I am rather often uneasy in my mind, because I think that my life has not been calm enough; all those bitter disappointments, adversities, changes keep me from developing fully and naturally in my artistic career.

Farah, Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 1926

To criticize one’s own conception of the world means therefore to make it a coherent unity and to raise it to the level reached by the most advanced thought in the world. It therefore also means criticism of all previous philosophy, in so far as this has left stratified deposits in popular philosophy. The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. Such an inventory must therefore be made at the outset.

Nathaniel, Andy Goldsworthy

We often forget that we are nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.

And MLK, Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom; something without has reminded him that he can gain it.

Xavier, W. E. B. Du Bois

We must complain. Yes, plain, blunt complaint, ceaseless agitation, unfailing exposure of dishonesty and wrong – this is the ancient, unerring way to liberty and we must follow it.

And Assata Shakur

I am a revolutionary. A black revolutionary. I have declared war on the rich who prosper on our poverty. The politicians who lie to us with smiling faces and all the mindless, heartless robots who protect them and their property.