Patricia Foster leads NWP Peace & Justice Fellows through Montgomery, Alabama
In April Professor Emerita Patricia Foster took ten NWP students from her History and the Sense of the Tragic seminar to Montgomery, Alabama to continue exploring conversations about racial injustice and the burden of the past. The writers, named Peace and Justice Fellows, visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, dedicated to more than 4,000 people who were lynched in the 19th and 20th centuries; the Rosa Parks Museum; and the famous Dexter Avenue Church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. Their trip was made possible through a grant from the University of Iowa.
Participants included Yasmin Boakye (NWP ’21), Amelia Gramling (NWP ’21), EmmaJean Holley (NWP ’21), Jess Kibler (NWP ’21), Brittany Means (NWP ’20), Kofi Opam (NWP ’21), Ian Shank (NWP ’21), Rachel Sudbeck (NWP ’21), Tiffany Tucker (NWP ’20), and Lei Wang (NWP ’21).
In addition to exploring landmarks and the memorial, the fellows taught master classes at Alabama State University and gave a reading of their own work. “They were spellbinding,” said Foster, “funny and evocative, meditative and lyrical, political and personal, subtle and soulful.”
We asked Foster why the Peace and Justice project is particularly important to her, why she wanted to take nonfiction students on this journey to Alabama. Below is her response:
The dead are always with us. After my sister died in December 2017, I began to think about the demands of the dead, how they exert their power, their influence. And I began to consider how the National Memorial for Peace and Justice might be seen as a secular afterlife where the dead can speak. What would all those victims – those men, women, and children who had been lynched – say to me? To others? And what would it take to listen? To really listen. To be angry and ashamed and moved and overwhelmed? These questions animated my thinking and seemed so full of power and possibility that I wanted to frame a class around them. I wanted to focus on how we as a culture (and as individuals) often try to undo the will of our ancestors, rebelling against their precedents or, at the very least, paying homage to the victims. I wanted to consider how literature, so often preoccupied with loss and trauma, reckons with wounding and grief, and how writers interrogate the revelation and repression that lives at the heart of our political and social history. Perhaps more directly, I wanted to look at how lynching – the fact of it, the dramatization of it – remains a haunted subject in our literary canon.
The dead are always with us. With me. In May 2018, I drove from my mother’s house in coastal Alabama to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. I wanted to visit this memorial and yet I also felt the weight of its intent: the grotesque psychology of lynching; its literal and symbolic horror. I admit I was anxious. But I was so moved by the experience that I wrote an essay, “Written in the Sky,” recently published in Under the Sun.
The dead are always with us. The dead writers that we love. The dead in our own families. The dead in our nation’s history. The dead we can honor. The dead denied our grief. The dead who have more to say through us. My hope was that, as writers, the Peace and Justice fellows would give voice to their experience in Montgomery, Alabama – visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the Legacy Museum, the Southern Poverty Law Center, teaching and giving readings at Alabama State University – and deepen their thinking about the paradoxical crossroads in our cultural past. –Patricia Foster