Why the humanities matter in troubled times
A myth is a widely held but false idea – and some myths die hard.
In 1958, two Virginia residents, Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, were married in Washington, D.C. Mildred was African American; Richard was white. A short time later they returned home to Virginia, where interracial marriage was against the law.
Upon their return, the couple were indicted. They pled guilty and were sentenced to one year in jail, but the judge suspended the sentence on the condition the couple agreed to leave the state and not return for 25 years. Still, the Lovings wished to live in Virginia, and in 1963, filed a legal action to declare the state law unconstitutional.
Virginia’s law prohibiting interracial marriage was not unusual. As late as the first half of the 20th century, 30 of 48 states enforced laws prohibiting interracial marriage, and in 1967, the year the U.S. Supreme Court heard the Lovings’ plea, 16 states, including Florida, still outlawed such marriages.
In explaining the state’s prohibition, the Virginia trial judge stated:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
The Virginia statute was justified “to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens,” to prevent “the corruption of blood,” “a mongrel breed of citizens,” and the “obliteration of racial pride.”
In response, the U.S. Supreme Court destroyed the myth, declaring unanimously that Virginia had no legitimate overriding purpose independent of disgraceful racial discrimination and that it was simply a “measure to maintain White Supremacy.”
Wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren in the majority opinion:
“The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men…
“The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”
This myth was undone by the humanities. Remember that history, jurisprudence, literature and philosophy are all humanities disciplines. A compelling Supreme Court opinion, such as the Loving decision, includes all four; a grand slam of humanities scholarship. The bright light of constitutional protection dispelled a disgraceful myth, and the relevance of the humanities was irrefutable.
In these pages in the past, I have tried to explain my perspective of why the humanities deserve community and governmental support. I believe the understanding of history is absolutely essential to the continued functioning of our Republic. But history is not just facts and events, according to the late author, professor, and civil rights activist Julius Lester:
“History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.”
What is true of history is true of literature, poetry and the study of religion. If the core purpose of the humanities is to gain a better understanding of ourselves and of others, then we cannot gain this understanding until we are able to make another’s pain our own.
“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” Harper Lee reminds us in To Kill a Mockingbird. Through the humanities, we can see patterns and themes over time and can glimpse the wisdom required to navigate current challenges. There is essential knowledge in the humanities, and often hope and inspiration. As our colleagues in Ohio say, the humanities introduce us to people we have never met, to places we may never see and to ideas that may never have crossed our minds.
But there is another myth to dispel; the Great Myth that knowledge of numbers, data, technology, science, finance, and power eclipse and make unnecessary the knowledge gained from the arts and humanities. This is nonsense. Both are necessary, but the humanities should never take an inferior role. As the author and poet Ursula Le Guin wrote:
“Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside and both celebrate what they describe.”
I write these words as our lives are significantly altered, first by a global pandemic, and then, as this magazine was going to print, by the national upheaval and soul-searching caused by the horrific deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others. So what does it mean to consider the humanities now? During difficult times, and there have been more difficult times than not in human history, the humanities are the most compelling. The humanities are the heart of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We still read “In Flanders Fields” to understand the horrors of WWI and The Grapes of Wrath to feel the Great Depression. Some of us were introduced to racial injustice by reading To Kill a Mockingbird and the words, both spoken and written, by Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and a hundred others (you will have your own list) explain ourselves better than any computer program will. Tell me the humanities have not changed the world or helped to explain our understanding of it!
We are undoubtedly in a period of great suffering that has touched all of us. Some have expressed this is not the time to focus on the humanities, not the time to seek support given the hurt in the world. I respectfully suggest this is the time we turn to the humanities most desperately. We always have, and when our world is stripped down to its essence, it is the humanities which bring both comfort and clarity.
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