Walking into the crowded conference room and seeing Dr. Herman Beavers, professor of English and Africana Studies, listening intently to a student interpret the meaning of a play, you would be excused for thinking you stumbled into any typical humanities class on a Friday afternoon at the University of Pennsylvania.
But this classroom, squeezed above a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop in a nondescript building on South 40th Street, is special. Conversations take place here that don’t often happen anywhere else on campus.
Courage to confront the past
The students are veterans enrolled in University of Pennsylvania’s Veterans Upward Bound (Penn VUB), a college preparatory program with cultural experiences supported by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.
The mostly African American group are older than other students on campus and many have grappled with addiction and housing insecurity. They are looking to open up new career opportunities through higher education like any other college-hopefuls but are distinguished by their rich and complicated lives — lives that lend to unusually powerful discussions.
“When you add in the range of experiences of both men and women, who have developed a perspective on how the world works — a perspective that may have been reached via the loss of self-respect, alienation from family, and finding the courage to confront their demons — it makes for incredibly enlightening conversation,” said Beavers.
The day’s topic featured an examination of Gem of the Ocean, August Wilson’s unflinching play about African American life in Pittsburgh at the dawn of the 20th century.
The story is a personal one for Beavers whose own family migrated to Pittsburgh from South Carolina in 1945. He has written and lectured extensively about Wilson and teaches a community service course at Penn based on his plays.
“We Have Value”
The group of about a dozen veterans walked into the room primed for a discussion. Really primed. In the weeks prior they read and discussed the script and then caught a performance at The Arden Theater. For some, Penn VUB provided their first live theater experience.
“[It] added a deeper connection to the story than reading the play alone,” said Lashay, one of the veterans. “I thought it was amazing how the play was still relevant to issues being faced today.”
“It became personally emotional,” said John, another veteran, who said the performance brought rare clarity to some issues he was struggling with.
When Dr. Beavers arrived to the classroom, he had little time to take his seat before the discussion dived deep into the meaning of ‘citizenship’ for freed slaves.
“We share a common human condition,” said one veteran. “We too experience what white people experience. We too have a family. We have value.”
“What does it mean to own yourself?” Beavers questioned back.
“To know oneself, to know one’s value as a human being, and being able to proclaim that and live it!” someone called out to nods and sounds of approval.
Throughout the discussion, Beavers reminded the class that he never asks rhetorical questions. He was not delivering a one-sided traditional lecture, rather it was a creative exercise everyone was invited to take part in.
“I try very hard to engage in active listening, which means pulling out things that flip a switch for me and trying to build on it,” said Beavers. “That way, the group — all of us — feel like we’ve built something together.”
What was built had the free flowing feel of a Coltrane record. Voices rose and fell, heady theories gave way to personal stories — with the occasional syncopation of humor and bald honesty.
“I destroyed my family because of my alcoholism,” someone admitted. “Like Citizen Barlow who went to the City of Bones, I’ve had to reconcile with the faces of my own past.”
In the play, the mythical City of Bones is the destination for the legendary slave ship, Gem of the Ocean. The character Citizen Barlow makes a spiritual pilgrimage there with Aunt Ester as his shamanic guide, allowing him a revelatory vision of his people’s ancestral journey to America and insight into the terrible crime he committed.
In the James Ijames directed performance at The Arden Theater, this scene burst to life as the whole theater flashed and rumbled, beckoning the dramatic transformation of the set into a colonial slave ship. At center stage, water cascaded onto a chained, sobbing Citizen Barlow while the haunting silhouettes of African slaves lined the outside of the hull and the cast intoned solemn hymns.
Vivid details from Gem of the Ocean were recalled and discussed by the group again and again — the play struck at the heart of their lived experiences.
“The performers brought life, dimension, and action,” said Charles, who before the play said he knew little about the lives of African Americans in this era. “I learned that I need to pursue more knowledge about my ancestry and culture.”
Engaging veterans in deep humanities discussions is gaining national traction. Initiatives supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and other organizations are providing resources for veterans to talk more openly about their past experiences and, in the case of Penn VUB, provide a springboard to college success.
“Through our support of University of Pennsylvania’s Veterans Upward Bound program we’ve seen the transformative power of the humanities for those who served in the military,” said Laurie Zierer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. “The humanities provide a valuable tool to help veterans deal with the lasting injuries of war.”
For his last question to the class, Beavers, who stayed far longer than he had scheduled, asked, “What have we talked about today?”
After a pause, one of the older men spoke up. “We’re still fighting the same battles, the same wars. We have to stay the course in order to make it better for the ones coming behind us.”
“You’re not on this journey alone,” said another. “There’s been many before you. You have to reach out and help people along the way.”
“This has renewed my sense of optimism about what we do as educators,” he said. “This is clean. This is pristine. This is magnificent. I don’t have enough adjectives to describe how this afternoon has been.”
“New beginnings have to be clean,” he concluded.