By April 2020, as the nation went into the Covid-19 lockdown, I was dismayed: a devastating and mysterious illness was painfully debilitating its sufferers, and even, apparently, presenting a new way of dying—suddenly, from a lack of oxygen, caused, apparently, by a new kind of pneumonia. The world needed so many skilled people—EMTs, nurses, doctors, immunologists, virologists, farmers, grocers, medical equipment manufacturers, supply chain logisticians, social scientists, public health experts. Overwhelmed at the time by the demonstrable value of the sciences in the moment (and the increasing disregard for it in the infomercials then broadcast nightly from the White House), I also worried, what did the world need from the humanities? What were the humanities going to do in the new world then emerging? In May, when I virtually attended the annual meeting of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, we directors of Humanities Centers discussed our priorities for the coming academic year. The focus of those conversations tended to be on budget pressures, rescheduling, and whether to have face-to-face events in the fall. All fine questions, but shouldn’t directors of Humanities Centers, I thought, also be asking themselves what we mean by the humanities now?
By early June, however, the social and political consequences of the novel coronavirus, and the national response(s) to it, revealed the continuing importance–and even the increased value–of the humanities. Systemic needs had become visible, and acute: for effective, consistent communication; for the evaluation of sources; for attention to logical and rhetorical implications; for a sense of historical perspective; for the quality of thinking that can sift for ethical, moral, and political consequences; for deliberative, but fast-moving analysis of great volumes of information; and for imagining other peoples’ lives and imagining new possibilities. The humanities reflect on and develop each of these, helping people increase their capacities for each of them.
After President Trump began to egg on largely white protesters, often armed, who were opposed to the shutdown he had asked for and had not lifted, I realized that the three ways we were simultaneously being asked to respond to the pandemic—stay home, follow the science, and rise up in armed outrage at the previous two—mapped on to dynamics I had tracked in my book manuscript about seventeenth-century English poetry, which I had just revised and returned to a press for review in January.
More recently, as videos of the deaths of, first, Ahmaud Arbery and then George Floyd emerged (in the former case months after shots were fired into the unarmed jogger), the nation was reminded of another persistent, virulent disease with which it has unfortunately learned to live, and for which vaccines are also regrettably in short supply—racism and anti-black violence. As I write this, in early June 2020, the US has experienced over a week of daily protests, nationwide, lootings and burnings, and nightly examples of militarized police using batons, shields, tasers, tear gas, paint balls, rubber bullets, and stun grenades against diverse groups of their fellow citizens, maybe even their neighbors. The protests have gone global, as people around the world chanted “Black Lives Matter,” and took a knee in solidarity.
With George Floyd being at least the second African American man, that we have heard of, in just the last few years to die while telling the police officer choking them, “I can’t breathe,” and with so many videotaped deaths by such a variety of means, too, I have been wondering why it took yet another such death to have the impact George Floyd’s has. There are lots of factors, of course: the galling callousness of Officer Chauvin as he knelt for 9 minutes with one hand in his pocket, and one knee on a neck; the awful repetition of death by police asphyxiation necessitating a bigger response; a demographically changing America, now about 60% non-Hispanic white; and the internet facilitating decentralized local expressions of sympathetic frustration. But I believe that the massive response to George Floyd’s death is also part of the Covid-19 story, not only because there are suddenly over 40 million unemployed and frustrated Americans (also, and again, more likely people of color).
In addition to all those factors, “I can’t breathe” resonates today, again today, and maybe more today, when over 111,000 Americans have died of a disease whose signature symptom is respiratory distress, and for which, in the early going, ventilators, or the lack thereof, had been a predominant national topic. By the time people saw the video of the death of George Floyd, they were attuned to breath, to breathing, and to people taking their last breaths, alone. By the time George Floyd died, people had also tuned in, one way or another, to task force briefings in which the proposed solutions were themselves sometimes deadly, and in which the principle presenter seemed to comprehend neither the risks in the new conditions nor the proposed ‘treatment.’ When George Floyd died, most people probably knew someone who had had Covid-10, and thus many more people worried that they too might soon be saying, “I can’t breathe,” also through no fault of their own, and also maybe because of a lack of governmental concern for them, an absence some of them could see in Officer Chauvin’s nonchalant demeanor. In short, maybe there was an opening where more people were feeling their shared vulnerability, which means, in part, a shared humanity.
At this point, I realized that if my research in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature was helping me think about what was happening now (and that what was happening now might inform my research), then the same must be happening for my Clemson Humanities colleagues, too, and maybe even more so for those who work in, say, American history, or American literature, or political philosophy, or, well, you get the idea. So, with this realization in mind, I wrote to many of my colleagues in the humanities at Clemson, and I asked them if they would like to write a brief, accessible post about how what is happening now informs their research, and vice versa, as part of a series I would call “Clemson Humanities Now.” I am delighted to say that many colleagues offered to contribute to this series. Come to think of it, actually, I am honored that they said yes—it is an honor to work with generous colleagues who are so actively thinking about the implications of their work, and the consequences of what is unfolding around them. This is Clemson Humanities Now.
The series will be updated as Clemson Humanities’ faculty posts arrive, starting this Wednesday afternoon.