Human/Ties celebration brings renowned speakers to Charlottesville

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Alice Waters will participate in a Farming the Earth, Cultivating Humanity panel discussion on Friday. Photo by Amanda Marsalis Alice Waters will participate in a Farming the Earth, Cultivating Humanity panel discussion on Friday. Photo by Amanda Marsalis

This week Sir Salman Rushdie, Junot Díaz and Alice Waters are among the impressive group of literary figures, activists and scholars assembling in Charlottesville for Human/Ties, a free, four-day celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Rushdie, the author and free speech advocate perhaps best known for his novel The Satanic Verses and the subsequent fatwa issued against him, will discuss the importance of literature in today’s world in a talk at the Paramount called “Being Human in a Global Age.”

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Read more about the “Landscapes of Slavery and Segregation” exhibit at Human/Ties

Díaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008 for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, will share his thoughts on the various Americas that exist within one nation in a talk called “The United States of Contradictions.” And Waters, sustainable food activist and writer, will participate in a panel discussion about ethics and food called “Farming the Earth, Cultivating Humanity.”

Junot Diaz. Publicity photo
Junot Diaz. Publicity photo

Almost two years in the making, the idea for Human/Ties germinated when James Hunter of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA invited William Adams, chairman of the NEH, to visit and discuss his plans for his tenure as chairman. Chad Wellmon, associate professor of German studies and chair of the faculty committee tasked with developing the program for Human/Ties, was present at that meeting with a dozen faculty members. He writes in an e-mail that, “During the conversations we all realized that Charlottesville would be an ideal place to host a 50th anniversary celebration for the NEH” because of “the power of history and ideas to help shape democracy.”

After that initial conversation, Adams and Ian Baucom, UVA’s dean of Arts and Sciences, secured funding from the Mellon Foundation.

“We were driven by the idea that the health and status of the humanities are too often reduced to the latest enrollment figures for history or literature classes at prestigious universities,” says Wellmon. “This event celebrates the vibrancy of the humanities wherever they might be encountered: in your local museum or library, in that well-researched and thoughtful article you posted on your Facebook or Twitter feed or the documentary you saw in the movie theater last week. The humanities are with us every day; it’s just that outside the university we don’t tend to talk about the humanities.”

The extent to which the humanities pervade our lives is reflected in the selection of speakers at Human/Ties, which, in addition to the names above, include David Simon, the creator of HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme,” Jaron Lanier, computer scientist, author and virtual reality pioneer, and Karl Marlantes, veteran and author of What It Is Like to Go to War.

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan/PENAmericanCenter

The history of our region is accounted for as well, with historian Annette Gordon-Reed, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello, taking part in a dialogue at Monticello about the legacies of slavery alongside poet and activist Nikki Giovanni and Harvard University professor, literary scholar and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr., among several others.

Other events include a panel on race in Charlottesville and a screening of the documentary film Freedom Riders (2010) with a discussion to follow between director Stanley Nelson and three original members of the Freedom Riders movement.

“Human/Ties celebrates how the humanities in their myriad forms can help us make sense of our world and think better about the problems and issues that face us all—from rapid changes in technology and the continued effects of war to the legacies of slavery and racism and the future of democracy,” Wellmon says.

Whether you attend an event about literature, film, food ethics, the urban landscape or how technology shapes our culture, Human/Ties will remind you that the humanities touch our lives every day and are something to celebrate.

Declaration of independence
The legislative act that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed in 1965 to launch the National Endowment for the Humanities declares: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located, masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”

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