I’m smiling so big that that I might crack open my face because of my recent good news. I have received an NEH grant!
As you may know, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is a government agency that funds amazing humanities programs nationwide. One of their many grants is for school teachers and university professors to take summer institute courses on a wide variety of humanities topics. The summer institutes range from one to five weeks, and NEH fully funds the programs so teachers can study and collaborate with teachers for all over the US.
There are 46 different institutes this summer ranging from “Cultures of Independence: Perspectives on Independence Hall and the Meaning of Freedom” in Philadelphia to “Political and Constitutional Theory for Citizens” in LA. Whether you are at teacher that wants to study history, politics, literature, culture, music, Religion, art, or language, there is a summer institute that will titillate your brain.
So guess where am I going to spend this summer?
I’m heading to Oaxaca, Mexico!
A bit of backstory here: The Fulbright to New Zealand was a very spiritual experience for me. The indigenous Māori have a deep connection to their whakapaka, their ancestry, the heart and soul of who they are and where they come from. When I would hear their stories of their land and of their people, I think about the black and white starkness of my own genealogy, where we can amazingly trace my white mother’s side back to Captain Jonathan Sparrow (maybe a cousin of the famous pirate made famous by Walt Disney?), born 1630 in England and came to the United States on a ship soon after the Mayflower. But on my Black father’s side, all that remains when looking just 150 years in the past is this single black and white photograph of a man and woman. Little is known about these two individuals; however, it is understood that this couple is the last of the traceable family members on my dad’s side, for the rest of the family tree is of course lost to slavery. There are many reflections and implications that arise from looking at the first two people in your family to possess freedom, and yet have no idea of their identities. They are the legacy of my blackness, but I do not even know their names or what brought them great joy.
One example of my spiritual journey to connect to my heritage in New Zealand came when I went to the glowworm caves in Waitomo with my dear friend Regina when she visited me for two weeks. After walking through 250 meters of cave and seeing amazing displays of stalactites and stalagmites, our guide told us to be utterly silent as the group approached a river flowing 40 meters under the earth. We climbed without speaking into a little rowboat we found there, and our guide pulled us using ropes attached to the top of the cave into utter darkness. And then, as we entered a cathedral of the cave, I looked up and saw millions of glowworms stuck like stars in the night sky. This sight rivals some of the most beautiful displays of nature I’ve gazed upon in my life so far, such as the sun rising over the ocean in Jamaica, or setting over the Charles Bridge in Prague.
And I just… lost it. There I was in a boat with 15 other people in a river under the earth gazing at something that can only be described as miraculous, and I just started weeping like an old woman reunited with a long lost love. There was something so undefined and special about looking up at those glowworms. I started thinking about all of the heartache, all of the freedoms stolen, all of the moments of struggle and perseverance that lead to that very moment of getting me into this boat to experience this miracle. Everything from slavery, to disease, to even my own amazing parents having to withstand racial bigotry to create their loving family, I know that I have not gotten here alone. And there I was standing on very tall shoulders having an encounter that my ancestors probably could not even imagine one of their descendants experiencing. I felt my ancestors sparkle their joy and pride for me through the lights of the glowing insects.
Now, mind you, it is incredibly difficult to prevent one’s neighbors from knowing you’re sobbing your eyes out when every slight creation of sound ricochets off of the water and sides of the caves, amplifying it a million times. But I’m only slightly ashamed that I got emotional, even if it made my boatmates fidget uncomfortably in their benches. I’m happy that I got to have that spiritual experience of feeling so incredibly connected to my past and to my heritage.