Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Berkeley Bumpkin

I applied for a summer Humanities grant to study ethnographic documentaries and write a paper at The University of California at Berkeley in 1989. They were supposed to call me by a certain date and let me know whether or not my proposal had been accepted, but that date came and went and I got no call, so we started making other plans for the summer. But about a week after the notification date I got a letter informing me that my proposal had been accepted and that I should call the graduate assistant to get housing set up for my family and me. We were all shocked that my proposal was accepted, because it was a “reach” to be considered anthropology, the subject of the seminar. I proposed to research African influence on Southern preachers and to apply my results to a “sermon” depicted in William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” But, for some reason, the committee liked the idea and I joined 11 other scholars from across the country for the summer. The grad assistant found us a hippy pad about a half block from People’s Park for a rental fee that blew our minds. When I mentioned that the rent seemed high, the reply was always, “This is California, Dr. Ford.” I wanted to say “duh” but I just tried to be a good statesman and replied, “sure enough?” Except I said, “sure nuff?” So, even before I arrived I had the reputation of a bumpkin, a sarcastic one. I liked the seminar a lot, though. There were a couple of other English professors in the group of 12, a film-maker or two, some genuine anthropologists, a historian from Puerto Rico and an education professor from Alaska. Thus, the discussions were lively and wide-ranging. We watched and discussed hours and hours of documentaries and tried to forge some conclusions about what it means to be alive on the planet. One of the film-makers from Northern California showed us a film she had recently produced about teen pregnancy. She was, of course, advocating the availability birth control devices in schools, which I found objectionable. I guess it showed on my face, because the director of the seminar called on me to respond. I further nailed down my reputation as a bumpkin by saying that there were other measures to reduce teen pregnancy that the film should at least acknowledge. The film-maker’s response was testy, “If you are talking about abstinence, Dan, you must remember, this is California, not Arkansas.” I felt duly rebuked; though I did point out that in 1989 Arkansas had a higher teen pregnancy rate than California. But that remark only gave her fuel for touting her somewhat narrow ideology. I didn’t want to argue, so I didn’t. It’s better to remain silent and be thought a bumpkin than to speak and remove all doubt. Anyway, while I was there, I wrote a paper and it was published in Southern Literary Journal and I established a friendship with the director that lasts until this day. We got out of there just after the Exxon spill and just before that bad old earthquake in July of 1989.

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