Last Wednesday, students, faculty and others packed into the Wells Fargo Auditorium on the first floor of the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center during Duke University associate professor, Tsitsi Jaji’s, historical lecture, “Notebooks for the Return of Native Lands.” The lecture was one of the first in the University of Nevada, Reno’s Sounding Identity Event Series sponsored by the Department of Music and Department of English through the Gender, Race and Identity Program.
Jaji presented on some of the U.S.’s most notable atrocities — the genocide and removal of Native Americans during the 1800s, and the African- American slave trade. She made reference to musicians and artists of the past and present who created their own symbolic renditions of controversial, dark eras throughout U.S. history.
Through drama, music, poetry and other nonverbal forms of communication, figures like Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright Derek Walcott and the brass-playing jazz artist Jacques Coursil were able to create a sense of comparison between several definitive moments in time.
According to Jaji, through his epic poem “Omeros” and play “Ghost Dance,” based on the 1890 Ghost Dance movement and the Sioux tribe, Walcott exposes the similarities between the inhumane acts toward Africans and Native Americans throughout the Caribbean and North America.
Jaji’s dissertation on Jacques’ work focuses on his album “Trail of Tears,” which is based on both the 1830s removal of the Cherokee people from areas in the South and Midwest as well as the Transatlantic slave trade.
Coursil forms a bridge between the two pieces of history through the use of sounds, supposedly unique to the Cherokee people, and rhythmic techniques as well as liner notes produced by poet Edouard Glissant and others. “Nuna Daul Sunyi,” or “Trail of Tears,” becomes linked to the slave trade when the track list ends with “Goree” and “Middle Passage,” named after significant locations involved with the African slave trade.
Jaji points out that Coursil linked the two experiences in a way that respected the incomparable differences between them. The idea of understanding without exactly having a direct relationship to each piece of history was a prominent theme throughout the discussion and something that’s embedded in Coursil’s narrative interpretation of history.
In an email to The Nevada Sagebrush, Jaji noted that one main lesson to take away from the work is that humans can show compassion without comparing cultural singularities and struggles.
“Jacques Coursil shows us that we can think deeply and sensitively about the histories of people who do not share our own heritage,” Jaji wrote. “One doesn’t have to be Native American to care about the history of Native Americans and the ongoing inequalities they face in the light of American imperialism.”
Jaji emphasizes that humanities of the 21st century include some of the best tools for thinking about a “complex and intertwined world” that’s marked by an era of globalization. She works with Duke’s English department, so it’s not surprising that she regards an artist like Coursil, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics, highly.
According to her, English today is a field that not only studies linguistics, but literature, philosophy, history and music. Facets of these areas are prevalent throughout Coursil’s work.
Jaji points out that this combination is not only important, but definitive of the work of several artists, writers, scholars and others who try to educate others on the world around them, and Coursil, whom she calls a “major scholar of Saussurean linguistics,” uses his own special methodology to expand on the way people relate and express themselves to each other.
“His album shows that taking time to listen to each other’s stories, and make beautiful memorials out of them, is one way to develop our capacity for empathy,” Jaji said.
Jaji is currently a traveling lecturer until this fall. She was just one of many speakers the Sound Identity Series has included in its campaign to inspire, educate and enlighten through art, English and music. The series will continue into February 2017.
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