This week in North Philly Notes, we highlight the contributions Temple University Press authors made to the recent Writers Resist event held in Philadelphia.
Nathaniel Popkin, co-organizer of the program, and forthcoming Temple University Press author, said this about the event:
We had dual goals for Philadelphia Writers Resist—the first is the need to stand up to protect First Amendment rights. Writers in every society have particular responsibility, and historically are the observers, documenters, dreamers…But there is a second reason for writers to stand up today: we are being directly threatened by the President-elect. (You can read some of these ideas in the op-ed we wrote for the Inquirer). The second reason for doing the event was to unite the various cells of the Philly literary community with a common purpose. My sense of Philly is that we have an incredibly rich literary community but it doesn’t really cohere. With this event, I felt that we joined voices around texts—we inhabited words together.
The event exactly hit my expectations: tone, tenor, energy, goodwill, and the words and voices that brought them to life seemed to carry extra poignance, extra meaning, when arranged next to each other. My sense in reading comments on Facebook and from what people told me after: people were struck by the humility and humanity of writers reading other people’s work. They were both inspired and frustrated that we’ve fighting these fights as long as we have, and they were reminded, with the extraordinary beauty and grace of the texts, that writers matter, that writing matters, that it gives shape to our greatest hopes as human beings.
Beth Kephart, author of Flow, and Love, read the lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Further On (Up the Road),” from his album, The Rising. She said she chose this song because, “it was a simple text, an invitation, a sliver of hope, a reminder, a refrain that we are not stuck in present time, not contained by present conditions, not condemned to paralysis. We are on a journey, and at this moment it is dark and miles are marked in blood and gold, but: there is a further on up the road, there is a path, a brighter path, to be forged.”
They were barbers, teachers, carpenters, soldiers. Octavius Catto and 80 other Pennsylvanians of color braved a blizzard to get to Harrisburg in February 1865. There they met for three days and nights in a church, and emerged with a message to the white world.
Black soldiers’ service and sacrifice were helping the Union win the war, Catto and his allies wrote. Let there be no further debate or delay in granting “our political enfranchisement, now and forever.”
The petition was a good fit for Writers Resist. Its authors, like their heirs in the modern Civil Rights Movement, challenged the racist order with a mix of courage and calculation; and they wrote well. Their final sentence made the same argument sculptor Branly Cadet has depicted in his statue of Catto, soon to be erected by City Hall: that the people’s power, wielded at the ballot box, can make injustice “disappear as the dews of morning melt before the morning sun.”
“….We have never yet been secure in our persons, houses, papers and possessions, from unreasonable searches and seizures, as warranted to all persons under the State Constitution. When tried by accusation before our State Courts, it has been almost impossible to secure an impartial jury…and in no case can it be claimed that we are tried, and judgment rendered by our peers. All these disadvantages have contributed to rivet the shackles of prejudice and political slavery upon us, and throw us upon the mercy of those who know no mercy even up to this very hour of national calamity and moral revolution…
Slavery is now dead… dead throughout the land — black men declared to be citizens of the United States, and marching by tens of thousands on field and flood against this monstrous rebellion… fighting, bleeding, dying in defense of our Constitution and the maintenance of our law.
Can it be possible that Pennsylvania will still suffer herself to be dishonored by refusing to acknowledge or to guarantee citizenship to those who have suffered so much, and still been foremost among her own sons in defending their country… against treason and rebellion?
Is it not our duty to ask
In the name of justice,
In the name of humanity,
In the name of those whose bones whiten the battlefields of the South, that every bar to our political enfranchisement be now and forever removed?
Do this, and all other evils and outrages will disappear as the dews of morning melt before the morning sun.
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