The world is full of propensity towards something, tendency towards something, latency of something, and this intended something means fulfillment of the intending. It means a world which is more adequate for us, without degrading suffering, anxiety, self-alienation, nothingness. However, this tendency is in flux, as one that has precisely the Novum in front of it. The Where To of the real only shows in the Novum its most basic Objective determinateness, and it appeals to man who is the arms of the Novum.
—Ernest Bloch, The Principle of Hope
In September of 2014, the Baltimore Sun revealed that the city had paid more than $5.7 million to more than 100 people who had won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. The city paid another $5.8 million in legal fees related to those claims. Seven months after the Sun published its report, 25-year-old Freddie Gray was arrested by Baltimore police for allegedly being in illegal possession of a switchblade. Gray fell into a coma while in police custody. He died five days later from injuries to his spinal cord.
News of his death resulted in protests and civil disorder in Baltimore. At least twenty police officers were injured, at least 250 people have been arrested, and thousands of police and Maryland Army National Guard troops were deployed to bring order to the city.
A medical examiner ruled Gray’s death a homicide, and the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office filed charges against six police officers.
“[P]eace has lost its credibility,” Baltimore resident Abdullah Moaney, an information technology worker from East Baltimore, told the New York Times. “If it wasn’t for the riot,” Moaney told the Times reporter, charges would not have been filed.
We could not have predicted Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore police or the unrest that followed when we began planning for this issue last summer. We agreed then that our second issue of Penumbra would follow the theme of the January conference of the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies program at the Union Institute & University: “Insurrection, Subversion, Rebellion.” The subject was very much inspired by the words of Fanon, who wrote in his 1961 The Wretched of the Earth that the liberation and re-awakening of a people after colonization “is always a violent event.”
We were interested in papers that addressed the role of insurrection, subversion and rebellion in the pursuit of social justice, work that examined physical confrontations as well as the tensions that drive social practice and the arts.
And then in July, Eric Garner died in Staten Island, New York, after a police officer put him in a choke-hold for 15 seconds. A month later a police officer shot and killed an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Freddie Gray died on April 15, 2015.
All of these cases resulted in protests and civil unrest that brought national and international attention and sparked debates about the tense relationship between law enforcement agencies and African Americans.
A day after a New York grand jury decided not to indict the officers responsible for Garner’s death, “[t]housands of demonstrators poured out in cities across the country … in a show of outrage,” the Boston Globe reported.
We saw outrage on the streets of Ferguson. A state of emergency was declared in Baltimore.
In this issue of Penumbra, we publish scholars who live in the United States, China, and India. Some are well-established and others are newly published. Their critical perspectives are diverse, yet they are all equally concerned with what Bloch described as the “philosophy of the new,” that is the belief that the human condition can and should be improved, that as scholars our work is to wrestle against the psycho-intellectual violence that, according to Fanon, holds “people in its grip.”
Merry Renn Vaughan examines the ways in which the author known as Dr. Seuss uses techniques he learned in advertising, as well as through the creation of political cartoons and military propaganda, to critique consumerism and classism. David Pendery writes of “an American artist-moralist tradition,” a tradition that he describes as a coalescence of aesthetic and moral stimuli that has conditioned American arts for decades. Erin McCoy revisits the 1960s and 1970s anti-Vietnam protests and investigates the ways in which the anti-war movement intersects with the fight for an independent Puerto Rico. Also writing about the civil rights movement, Gregory Bailey chronicles Dr. Martin Luther King’s persistent endeavor to address the flaws inherent in capitalism. In his work, the historian Raffaele Florio uses the Virgin of Guadalupe to demonstrate a mediation between two colliding cultures, the Catholic friars and the Maya people. Regina Nelson shares a personal story in order to demystify cannabis use.
The creative work in this issue moves from the whimsical (the poetry of Christopher Mulrooney) to the existential (Prakash Kona’s short fiction). Jjenna Hupp Andrews’s visual series “Nomadic Borderlands” explores “the relationships between our bodies and our exterior world, focusing of the shifting edges of where our body (interior) ends and the outside (exterior) world begins.”
In her review of Koala Boof’s The Sexy Part of the Bible, Aiesha Turman writes that the novel “begins with the individual Black woman, allows her to be at the center of herself, but then pushes against barriers of gender and race to create a new world.”
The violence that spilled onto the streets of Baltimore following Gray’s death has many antecedents. There were the draft riots in New York City in 1863; the December 1915 public rape and lynching Cordella Stevenson; the Memphis 1866 riots in which white rioters—law enforcement among them—killed 46 black people, raped five black women, and burned hundreds of black-owned homes, schools, and churches. What I mean to suggest here is there was nothing new in the violence that took the lives of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott.
Victims, all of them, of centuries-old systems of violence. The authors in this issue, like Bloch, write toward “the Novum in front.” Their work considers that, perhaps, our societies can be remade, that they can be made better than they are presently. None of the authors published in this issue provide simple solutions. What they provide are possibilities—for interrogating our assumptions (see Florio), for finding in literature lessons on doing good and making a good life (see Pendery, Turman, and Vaughan), and the power of art to say what cannot be said otherwise (Mulrooney, Bonecek, Andrews).