I crashed my South African pal Janet’s favorite course on the study of Africa and its problems, taught by the Pulitzer-winning scholar Caroline Elkins. We were walking toward the classroom building with another Nieman, Zimbabwean Hopewell Chin’ono, when photographer Gary Knight swept up to join us in his wonderfully British way (is bescarfed a word)?
“You two together in a course on Africa?” he said to Janet and Hopewell, eyebrows raised, his usual grin its usual huge. “You two examining how her European ancestors decimated your African ancestors? … Fantastic!”
My favorite thing about being tossed into the intellectual/multicultural stew that is the Nieman Fellowship is making friends with journalists who have covered extraordinary events all over the world — the end of Apartheid, drug wars in Mexico, conflict in Kosovo, gunfire in a Fallujah mosque and just about every other modern-day big event you can think of. (When one Nieman said she was itching to go cover the Haiti earthquake, our curator was said to chortle something about “golden handcuffs” — the pledge we signed not to work during the Nieman year. To which I respond: Cuff away.)
My second favorite thing is the range of brain candy available to us as class auditors at Harvard. Courses this week have ranged from Pentecostalism in Liberia and Robert Oppenheimer’s guilt (a sampling of Harvey Cox’s Religion in America) to the new “paleo” movement of New York hipsters who restrict their diets to meat and other foods of the caveman era (Food and Culture, taught by Ted Bestor).
Henry Louis Gates led his second Af-Am studies lecture with a rap song by G-Mike that went, “Read a book. Read a book. Read a Book, Mu-tha-fuck-a, Read a book,” then segued to a talk on Enlightenment-period philosophers’ belief that blacks were closer to apes than humans. (Gates had a great piece on root.com earlier in the week about the “real curse on Haiti,” which he traced back to Thomas Jefferson.)
Just for kicks — and because I heard you don’t want to spend a year at Harvard and not see this guy in action — I sat in on Rory Stewart’s human rights class. This is the British chap who spent two years walking across Afghanistan, ran a province in Iraq and will leave Harvard in March to run for British Parliament, where he’s favored to win the Conservative seat (“When I told the dean I was leaving early, I explained that it’s like running as a Democrat in Massachusetts”). He talked about Nietzsche, Bentham and Mill and their criticisms of human rights legislation. The introductory material didn’t quite move me, but it was interesting to get a glimpse of the charming, eloquent Big Brain at work.
Last night a bunch of us braved snow and a wind so bitter that our car doors froze shut to get to Tufts University for the opening of a photo show called Questions Without Answers, a truly stunning (though sometimes hard-to-stomach) exhibition from VII, the photo agency started in 1999 by our favorite bescarfed Brit and his mates. This massive show depicts the defining events of the post-Cold War period — the fall of the Berlin Wall, Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11, Congo. … These are some of the most heartrending, intimate photographs I’ve ever seen — or not seen (because editors deemed them too graphic or politically unpalatable), as was sometimes the case.
This morning I get to return to Drawing with Anne McGhee, who is post-retirement but still teaching, making art and — get this — learning how to figure-skate. Last month she came to class with a purple hand, after a bad fall on the ice. Many her age might worry about breaking a hip, but Anne shrugged the bum hand off and, sure enough, the following week she was good to go, fearless and full of sass. Her favorite move is the sit-spin, “which I like to do really fast,” she explained. She’s a fabulous teacher, especially for beginners, because she wanders around the studio looking at your work, cracking jokes and making suggestions. Just when you’re feeling too clumsy to advance beyond Charcoal for Dummies, she asks: “Are you sure you’ve never drawn before? I don’t believe it.”
I guess that’s what I hope to take away from our year in Cambridge — the desire to keep exploring new possibilities, no matter how remote or improbable they seem. I may never walk across a continent or report from a war zone, but I know now with certainty: If you believe there are many journeys still ahead, well then, damn straight there are.