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The Creative Process in the Arts and Beyond

August 30, 2019

Thanks to Jennifer Taylor, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

It feels like August has only just begun, but somehow it is drawing to a close suspiciously quickly. As a new teacher, this inevitably results in mixed emotions. I - and I believe I can safely say most teachers - spend a good chunk of the summer thinking about and working on my job. I take an online course, review and improve the resources and materials I used for my classes last year, and generally feel very calm, organized, and prepared. As the last weeks of August slip away, though, that calm feeling disintegrates into anxiety. What courses will I actually end up teaching? If it’s a course I haven’t taught before, how will I prepare myself? What will my classes be like? And how in the world am I going to fit all of the curriculum requirements into just a few short months?

Obviously, I haven’t perfected the art of teaching. The thing about mastering anything is that you must do it over, and over, and over again, but as a young teacher I don’t always have the luxury of teaching the same class - or even at the same school - more than once. A challenge, certainly, but it also gives me the opportunity to look at teaching from different perspectives and try out different educational theories. Sometimes, I am a languages teacher, teaching French as a Second Language with a focus on authentic dialogue and action-based language learning. Sometimes I am an art teacher, teaching Visual Art and emphasizing the Growth Mindset while remaining cognizant of the multiple intelligences my students possess. Last year, I taught both at once - French Immersion Visual Art, an art course conducted entirely in French.

During that semester, as well as integrating the previously-mentioned pedagogical theories, I found that the Creative Process was invaluable in helping me structure the course. Though I have only seen it used in this iteration in the context of secondary Visual Arts, it fit in beautifully with the development of language skills, and I think could be used as a framework in other subjects as well. The individual steps will be very familiar, and can be spread out and used over an entire unit of study (as I do in my Art program) or scaled down to fit within a single period. I will give an example of the application of this process - specifically, how I used it to work through a clay relief sculpture unit with my students last year.

Challenging and Inspiring
When introducing a new topic, concept, or project, I try to start here, by inviting my students to be inspired by the potential that exists in our new topic of study. Often, this is dictated by the curriculum; in my case, the curriculum specifies that 9th grade French Immersion Visual Arts students be introduced to the art of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. We therefore examined ancient relief sculptures in caves, temples, on columns, and in burial chambers, focusing on a few key aspects: the level of relief, the textures used, and most importantly what stories are being told, and how they can be interpreted based on the sculptor’s choices.

When it comes to challenging students, the focus is on developing skills based on the topic of inspiration, rather than replicating stylistic elements or subjects. The artistic challenge posed to my students, therefore: how can depth and texture be used effectively in a clay slab to help communicate a story about you?

Imagining and Generating
Before they can really begin to consider how they will carry out the challenge, they must be able to see the possibilities and constraints that exist within it. Only after gaining an awareness of proper processes and techniques will students be able to imagine themselves carrying out the same actions. With clay, there are many physical rules and variables; with an adequate moisture content, it is malleable, but as it dries it becomes fragile and unworkable; if any air bubbles are created as it is being sculpted, it will explode when it is fired in the kiln; if pieces are not attached together using the proper technique, they will break apart during firing. Watching videos, participating in demonstrations, and looking at examples in various stages of completion allow students to imagine how they will manipulate the techniques themselves, and begin to generate their own ideas and do research on how to realize them.

An exemplar I showed my students to demonstrate what the planning and preliminary sculpting stages could look like for the project. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.

An exemplar I showed my students to demonstrate what the planning and preliminary sculpting stages could look like for the project. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.


Planning and Focusing
This is one of the stages that many students resist. Once they have their heart set on an idea, many prefer to jump straight into the final product, without passing “GO” or collecting their $200. It takes some time to convince students that a person’s first idea is not always their best - that sometimes, doing a little bit of planning work and trying variations on their original idea can pay off in a big way. At first, I give students a number of sketches they must complete before choosing one to pursue; but it doesn’t take them long to realize that their first composition is rarely the most successful. By the end of the year, their planning work is much more self-directed and gives them confidence in their ability to carry out their plan in the next stages.

In the planning stages of the clay relief sculpture, students sketched several potential compositions, then chose their favourite (with feedback from their peers and teacher) and added important technical details to indicate areas that would be additive (clay added onto the flat slab) or reductive (clay carved away from the surface) and what textures would be used. This helped them to visualize how they would achieve three dimensions when planning was done on a two-dimensional surface.

Exploring and Experimenting
This step will look very different depending on the skills being developed in any task or project. The intention is to ensure that every student is able to experiment with the materials and skills they will be using before having to touch their final work. Ideally, this stage should be low-risk in terms of evaluation so students can take huge risks in their experimentations. In my clay example, students created a miniature flat slab of clay and were invited to experiment with textures and techniques they wanted to use in their project. If they planned to sculpt a bird, their experimentation could tackle the challenge of how to create the texture of a feather in clay, how to sculpt and attach a delicate foot, or how to create the illusion of depth in the background.

Producing Preliminary Work
Finally, the “good copy”! If all other steps have been carried out with dedication and effort, this stage becomes easy; following a detailed plan that has been generated based on an artistic challenge and explored with proper techniques is simple - in a perfect world. In our world, additional challenges will still arise, disasters will strike, and all hope will occasionally be lost. Luckily, the creative process has not abandoned us - there are still more stages to come.

Revising and Refining
Whether or not all previous steps went according to plan, there are always improvements that can be made. When a student throws their hands up and says “I’m done!” I always ask a follow-up question. How do you know you are done? Is there any part of it you are not yet happy with? If your work belonged to one of your classmates, what suggestions would you give them for improvement? Whether your evaluation tool of choice is a checklist, rubric, success criteria, or something else, students can always go back to it and refine their product.

This is also one of the stages where feedback from peers is most important; if the creator runs out of inspiration for revisions, fresh eyes and a new point of view can be the most effective tools for revising one’s work. As well as improvised revisions with individual students, this is a stage where I also take the time for explicit peer evaluation with specific instructions. In our sculpture unit, I periodically had them stop working for a period of about ten minutes and discuss their progress with a partner, and ask that partner for suggestions. It is important that feedback is helpful without being harsh. A critical statement such as, The nose on your sculpture is too flat, can be discouraging. Advice, with phrasing like, The nose would look more realistic if you added more clay to the tip so it projects more, provides a path forward for revisions.

The final sculpture, ready to be shared with the artist’s group for feedback after it has been fired. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.

The final sculpture, ready to be shared with the artist’s group for feedback after it has been fired. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.


Presenting and Sharing/Reflecting and Evaluating
Presenting their work is another step that my students were reluctant to undertake, so sometimes I blended the last two steps of the process together. In older grades, students might participate in a formal, unscripted full-class critique of each other’s work. In younger grades, I found that preparing a self-reflection and then sharing their work in small groups or partners was more successful. A written reflection on their work not only forced students to examine their own learning - it also made it obvious to me when they did not really understand the criteria. When a student gave themselves 10/10 for something they failed to include in their work (which did happen), it allowed me to determine the extent of their understanding, and also to reflect on how I could improve my teaching of the concept.

With their written reflection as a guide, I ask students to share the reasons behind their chosen composition, where they found success, and where they could have improved. Classmates can then weigh in with comments on what they enjoyed, suggestions for next time, or questions. The important thing about this stage is that it takes place immediately after they complete the project, so students can more effectively internalize the suggestions they receive and immediately apply them to the next project. Often, the creator themselves or a classmate will address the very same aspects that I would give in my evaluation of the work - but the student does not have to wait a week or two to receive the feedback in writing, by which time they have already mentally moved on.

The artist’s reflection on their own work. In this case, they were happy that the levels of depth and the textures looked realistic. If they could do it again, however, they would alter the composition so there was not so much empty space at the bottom. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.

The artist’s reflection on their own work. In this case, they were happy that the levels of depth and the textures looked realistic. If they could do it again, however, they would alter the composition so there was not so much empty space at the bottom. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor.


Feedback and Reflection
I have mentioned feedback specifically at a few key stages, but what I appreciate about this version of the creative process is that feedback and reflection take place at every stage of a project. This does not mean that I force students into some form of formal reflection at every stage - rather, I encourage students to be frequently discussing their work with their classmates as they work, so that reflection and feedback take place organically throughout the process. One potential challenge is ensuring that constructive feedback among peers avoids being offensive or dismissive of their work. As previously mentioned, in that interest, students are encouraged to give suggestions for improvement rather than critical comments on unsuccessful aspects. As well as improving artistic skills and techniques, they are also developing their language skills - obviously an advantage in a Second Language course, but no less effective in a wide variety of other fields as well.

The potential of the Creative Process has not yet been fully developed. It has been a great guiding tool in teaching Visual Arts, but I see how it can be useful beyond an art classroom, and I will now be adapting this same process into every course that I teach.

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Designing for (Dis)Ability: Children's Books and Blind Readers

August 23, 2019

Thanks to Laken Brooks, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

From the Three Blind Mice to Mary Ingalls Wilder, blindness remains a rare -- albeit important topic in children’s literature. In the past, many literary representations presented blindness (and disability overall) as a tragedy or even as a public burden. Fortunately, readers can recognize some progress. According to scholar Donna Sayers Adomat, “In the past ten years, literature for children and youth depicts increasingly positive attitudes towards people with disabilities.” Fortunately, in many newer titles, authors feature blind children in school, with friends, and living fulfilled lives. However, most of these children’s books about blind characters are not designed for a blind reader.

I do not write about disability and the publishing industry without precedent. In Dust, Carolyn Steedman describes how bookbinders and papermakers experienced respiratory illnesses in the early ages of the European printing press. The dust from the paper manufacturing process clogged their lungs, a tangible example of how literacy and disability have been materially connected for generations. With children’s books, the bright colors and flat pages are not, in and of themselves, ableist. After all, many children learn best with visual stimulation. According to Maria Popova, “bright, primary colors are most effective for the very young” because young children “tend not to have the language skills to express in words what they are receiving from an image.” Nonetheless, this visual communication evokes harm when children’s books use traditional illustrations to portray blind characters. In producing blind characters for abled readers, authors ostracize blind children who might otherwise find a valuable sense of community in the book.

Children’s literature relies on sight: bright colors, flat pages, full-page illustrations. Most children’s books featuring blind characters do not articulate self-awareness about their design. One book, Lucy’s Picture by Nicola Moon, positions itself as reflective analysis of blindness and literacy. Lucy tries to decide how she should paint a picture for her grandfather. Lucy isn’t convinced by the red, yellow, and blue paints: “they’re not right.” When Lucy asks if she can “stick things on” the page with glue, her teacher says, “You’ll have to move to a different table. There’s not enough room here.” She moves to an empty table in the corner of the room. Lucy closes her eyes and thrusts elbow-deep into a box of fabric and paper scraps, feeling with her eyes closed. Slowly and thoughtfully, Lucy collages materials into a landscape. Lucy spends her recess collecting sand and twigs for her picture. Finally, Lucy cuts her own hair to replicate the fur of her grandfather’s dog. At the end of the story, the reader finds out that the grandfather is blind and his golden retriever a seeing eye dog. “It’s the best picture I have ever seen,” says her grandfather.

Lucy’s Picture breaks ground by critiquing flat pictures and showing how blind readers can “see” texts in tactile ways. The text demonstrates an awareness of the pitfalls of flat images. This analysis provides a valuable springboard from which we can discuss book production and inclusive literacy. However, Lucy’s Picture centers the abled reader. Lucy’s Picture is produced for the Lucys of the world rather than the grandpas, so to speak. Lucy makes “the most beautiful picture” that her grandfather can “see” through the touch and feel components. Nonetheless, the book itself does not make the same multimodal accommodations that Lucy provides her grandfather. Lucy refuses to use red and blue paint because she understands that her grandfather cannot see these colors; they are “not right.” Ironically (and perhaps hypocritically), a reader’s first impression of this book is the bright color splashed across the cover. The children’s book continues to use these bright colors on every page. Lucy uses multimedia elements so her grandfather can touch and “see” her art, but Lucy’s Picture does not make this same use of media elements.

What does it mean to promote a new model of readership, of accomodation in publishing praxis? First, publishers and abled authors must work alongside disabled people to create multisensory alternatives. Menena Cottin’s The Black Book of Colors serves as an example. The text features Braille translations and full spreads of raised images, tangible pictures of leaves and flowers. Like in a colorful children’s book, these full illustrated pages engage the child and set the pace of reading. However, this book foregoes all color. Flowers and grasshoppers come to life under a reader’s fingertips. Even for seeing readers, these raised images are hard to spot with the naked eye. Seeing readers and blind readers alike find more meaning when their hands study the page. By avoiding bright colors, The Black Book of Colors promotes a similar reading experience among blind and seeing readers; children have a moment of kinship when they share this text. Chamari Edirisinhe, Norhidayati Podari, and Adrian David Cheok created a book prototype similar to The Black Book of Colors. In this multisensory experience, each page has English and Braille translations. Certain black pages are adorned with tactile materials, accompanied by sound, and even highlighted with scent. These sensory cues and reader questions all invite young readers to critically engage in the text. On one spread, a reader will touch a tuft of black fur. The text reads, “Alice’s friend is a playful cat. Did you enjoy it?” A book designed for a blind child may look very different than a mainstream picture book. This book rolls out flat like a scroll, the child moving across the room as they touch and read each page. Such a text demonstrates the ways in which abled bias permeate our reading experience, from character stereotyping, illustrations, audience, and even the codex form. Additionally, we can look at pop-up books, touch-and-feel books, and toy or moveable books to provide inspiration for ways in which we can design entertaining books for blind children.

While the history of disability representation has changed for the positive over time, educators, authors, and publishers alike can adopt a better design model for all young readers. By working alongside disabled creators, we can create new texts specifically for -- not just about -- disabled children.

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Inscription Trail

March 29, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Enhance today’s blog by listening to three different musical interpretations of the land:

Zuni Rain Dance (30 seconds)

El Corrido de Norte” by Los Halcones De Salitrillo (4 min)

A’ts’ina: Place of Writings on Rock” by Michael Mauldin (1 min)

Inscription Trail may be off the beaten path according to today’s standards, but this was not always the case. As early as 1200 AD this place became a vital rest stop. Near the western border of New Mexico, Inscription Trail sits at the base of a sandstone bluff and presents one of the only watering holes for many miles in what can seem like a desolate place. Among the petroglyphs, foreigners began to inscribe their names into sandstone, hence the name Inscription Trail. This place maps history in a way seldom seen today. It is a literal palimpsest of names, cultures, events, and ecology.

To begin, the land itself is ever-changing. While El Morro (Spanish name for “the headland”) holds water, the bluff’s top is arid, dry, and windswept. Snow and rain run into El Morro’s twelve foot deep pool and is the only visible water for miles which is how it quickly became the watering hole for all peoples of the west. It also supports wildlife rarely seen in the desert such as mud swallows, tiger salamanders, and catfish. Juniper trees and shrubs at the bluff’s base contrast the windswept, sky-filled cliff. Crows nest in sandstone fissures as El Morro echoes with the fall of water.

As Europeans arrived and later as homesteaders moved west, El Morro became popular with scouts and explorers. Of course, Native Americans already knew of it. A Zuni town stands atop the great sandstone bluff at A’ts’ina (place of writing on rocks). Petroglyphs of bear and bighorn sheep date back to 1275 AD. (It would be another three hundred years before the first Spanish explorer arrived.) The pueblo atop the cliff contains almost 900 rooms and is thought to have housed about 1000 people.

In 1583, Don Antonio de Espejo traveled from Mexico (New Spain) along the Rio Grande into what is now the state of New Mexico. As part of a journey to rescue some abandoned friars, he met many native tribes. Some of their interactions were peaceful and some not, however he relied upon their information. Various indigenous communities told him of way to find metal ores and mines which immediately interested Espejo. He extended his travel without permission from the church of Spain. In his journeys around the Zuni pueblo, he discovered El Morro (though he called it “El Estanque de Penol” or “pool at the great rock”). Espejo did not find minerals or gold, however his journey did mark a defining point of New Mexican history which was to become an important site for missionaries.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the ways in which land carries historical reminders. This is, of course, true for El Morro. A few hundred years after Espejo, many wagon trains rolled through this area, and the name changed once again to Inscription Trail. This single place which contains a vital watering hole lists hundreds of names etched in stone. All names and images on this wall offer a glimpse into history.

Few names have received more attention than Juan de Oñate. According to the Inscription Trail Guide provided by the National Park Service, Oñate’s inscription is “one of the oldest and more famous inscriptions at El Morro…inscribed in 1605, fifteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. In 1604, Oñate left the settlement of San Gabriel with thirty men in search of the ‘South Sea’ (the Pacific Ocean). During their trip, the group visited the Gulf of California as well as the South Sea. On his return, Oñate left this inscription:

Paso por aq[u]i el adelantado Don Ju[a]n de Oñate del descubrimyento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605.

Governor Don Juan de Oñate passed through here, from the discovery of the Sea of the South on the 16th of April, 1605.”

It should be noted that this was Oñate’s second time through the area, having first passed through in 1598. Oñate has a fairly brutal history in New Mexico. He founded settlements for the Spanish and also became the first colonial governor of Santa Fe, as recognized by New Spain (Mexico). In doing so, however, he is best remembered for the Acoma massacre where he killed about 1000 people of the Acoma pueblo. Those who were not killed (500 or so) were forced into servitude. Of those, Oñate ordered the removal of one foot from all men above the age of twenty-five. He was eventually banished from New Mexico and exiled from Mexico City for such brutality. His name is etched in perpetuity along Inscription Trail. Don Juan de Oñate is not the only political figure to sign his name here either. General Don Diego de Vargas also passed through in 1692 and much like Oñate, his record is also problematic. After the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, he reestablished Spanish control over the Native Americans and then became governor.

General Don Diego de Vargas’s inscription roughly translates to: “General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico, at his own expense, was here, in the year of 1692.” (Photo credit: Alissa Simon)

General Don Diego de Vargas’s inscription roughly translates to: “General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico, at his own expense, was here, in the year of 1692.” (Photo credit: Alissa Simon)


Not all travelers at Inscription Rock were conquistadors, generals, or adventurers. Some were homesteaders and settlers looking for land. The Inscription Trail Guide explains:

“More than 150 years later, below Vargas’s inscription, three men added their own inscriptions. P. H. Williamson, Isaac Holland, and John Udell were members of the first emigrant train to try this route to California in 1858. The original caravan consisted of forty families and was led by L. J. Rose, who was born in Germany but made his fortune in dry-goods in Iowa. At El Morro, they left their inscriptions and then moved on to the Colorado River, where they were attacked by Mojave Indians.

“Thanks to journals kept by the immigrants, we know that survivors of the attack, including Rose, the Baley sisters, and Udell and his wife who were both in their sixties walked most of the way back to New Mexico to wait out the winter. Some of the party started again for California in 1859 in the company of Lt. Edward F. Beale.”

Beale himself is a fascinating figure. Following the Mexican-American War, Congress commissioned a number of expeditions into the deserts stretching between California and Texas. (They were, of course, eager to gain access to this uncharted wilderness and failed to recognize that much of this land was already inhabited by a wide variety of Native American tribes.) Beale’s Wagon Road stretched from Arkansas to Los Angeles. In addition to charting the road, Beale attempted to use camels. While the camels performed well, he notes, they eventually lost out to mule trains (and mule lobbyists). Beale’s signature is not on the wall, however some of his men did record their names.

Finally, it seems a fitting end to Women’s History Month to note that a handful of women also signed their names at El Morro, including the above-mentioned Baley sisters. There is also an inscription by the then twelve-year-old Sallie Fox.

Whatever name we choose to call this place: Inscription Trail, El Morro, or A’ts’ina, it reminds us of the complexity of human history.

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Baldwin’s Unfinished Notes

February 22, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

James Baldwin was working on an unfinished manuscript when he died in 1987. Baldwin’s family recently gave this manuscript to filmmaker and activist Raoul Peck, who then turned it into a 2016 film entitled I Am Not Your Negro. While a text of the same name accompanies the film, it is worthwhile to seek out the film which includes a stunning array of archival footage. The book, too, includes some photographs, but nothing in comparison to the film itself. Baldwin’s notes deconstruct personal relationships, historical events, and popular films, making it impossible to simply read his notes. It is immensely helpful to see the images and places that Baldwin discusses. Truly, an image contains so much to analyze. In one section, Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin’s discussion of the violence in Birmingham, while video images of Mars plays. This creates a strong image-to-text association, but also shows the great disparity between the barren world of Mars and the overheated passions of Birmingham. Baldwin writes: “White people are astounded by Birmingham,/ Black people aren’t./ White people are endlessly demanding to be/ reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars./ They don’t want to believe,/ still less to act on that belief,/ that what is happening in Birmingham/ is happening all over the country./ They don’t want to realize that there is not one step,/ morally or actually, between/ Birmingham and Los Angeles.” (34) The film also presents footage of Baldwin’s lectures and talk show appearances. Baldwin’s face speaks volumes. While the same is true of his written word, his presence enhances the documentary.

The notes that Peck received from Baldwin’s family were meant to draw parallels between three of Baldwin’s friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. These very different men were on the front lines of racial discussion and action. While the film gives some details and contains some footage of these men, I truly wish that Baldwin’s voice were able to tell us more about his relationships and interaction with them. There is so much left unsaid.

The film interlaces present day material with images from Baldwin’s life and from films and documentaries. In other words, Peck and Baldwin demonstrate the nation’s complexity. Baldwin’s focus on the arts helps to elaborate a number of points. He begins with questions of beauty, the notions of a young boy who saw equal beauty and likeness in Joan Crawford and a “colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly/ like Joan Crawford.” (25) Then, he moves into ways in which African Americans have been depicted onscreen, most of which played into stereotypes. Peck’s video montage offers a strong reminder of Baldwin’s voice through letters, lectures, analysis, and texts.

Below I have copied a few notes from the text which stood out to me. I recommend seeing the film in its entirety in order to better understand the discussion of race relations both past and present.

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“To watch the TV screen for any length of time/ is to learn some really frightening things/ about the American sense of reality.

“We are cruelly trapped between/ what we would like to be and what we actually are./ And we cannot possibly become/ what we would like to be until we are willing/ to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead/ on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame,/ and so ugly.

“These images are designed not to trouble,/ but to reassure./ They also weaken our ability to deal/ with the world as it is, ourselves as we are.” (86)

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“For a very long time, America prospered:/ this prosperity cost millions of people their lives./ Now, not even the people who are the most/ spectacular recipients of the benefits of this/ prosperity are able to endure these benefits:/ they can neither understand them/ nor do without them./ Above all, they cannot imagine the price paid/ by their victims, or subjects, for this way of life,/ and so they cannot afford to know/ why the victims are revolting.

“This is a formula for a nation’s or a kingdom’s/ decline, for no kingdom can maintain/ itself by force alone.

“Force does not work the way/ its advocates think in fact it does./ It does not, for example, reveal to the victim/ the strength of the adversary./ On the contrary, it reveals the weakness,/ even the panic of the adversary/ and this revelation invests the victim with patience.” (90-1)

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“History is not the past./ It is the present./ We carry our history with us./ We are our history./ If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.” (107)

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“Not everything that is faced can be changed;/ but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (103)


Film: I Am Not Your Negro. Directed by Raoul Peck. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.

Text: Baldwin, James. I Am Not Your Negro. Edited by Raoul Peck, Penguin, 2016.


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