Langston Hughes was the only black child in a “white” school before he became an iconic poet during the Harlem Renaissance. In his autobiography, titled “The Big Sea,” he wrote about what it was like as a black man growing up in the United States before the civil rights era.
Now, this 74-year-old book, which was selected for the Penn Reading Project next year, is at the heart of criticism from Penn students. Since students were informed of the book selection, some have hoped that the theme year would focus on the themes of identity and race that were raised in ”The Big Sea.”
They were instead disappointed to find out that the theme would be the Year of Discovery. Their disappointment has also raised concerns about the lack of student involvement in choosing the theme year and Penn Reading Project book selections.
“[In] choosing the theme of discovery, I almost feel as if it’s so broad it gives people a way out of approaching these topics altogether,” said College senior Oyinka Muraina , a member of the Penn African Students Association. “Being a person of color is so important in this book, and identity is so important as a theme in this novel.”
Given recent events surrounding Ferguson, Mo., and the backlash against some protestors, it’s important to have mandated conversations on race, UMOJA co-chair and College senior Denzel Cummings said. The theme of discovery has “very little to minimal relation to the amount of racial issues that are related in the book,” he said.
These students, upon hearing the news, initially planned to approach the University to change the theme. Cummings, who has worked with administrators in his role with UMOJA, reached out to Rob Nelson, executive director for education and academic planning in the Provost’s office , who sits on the committee to select the theme year. While they were able to meet and discuss the student concerns, the theme was not going to be changed.
Nelson, in response to the criticism about the lack of focus on race with next year’s theme, told The Daily Pennsylvanian that, “one thing that is important to understand, the name of the year of discovery is really an invitation to everyone on campus to think about what programming they want to do. There is very little beyond the book that the central committee plans.”
Though he recognizes that “the book is to a large extent about Hughes’ own discovery of race,” Nelson said that the theme is meant to be broad to “give Penn’s 12 schools a framework for following up on our reading project book.”
Though the theme year cannot be changed for next year, Cummings will still be speaking on Wednesday night at the University Council’s open forum, where he will suggest that people who have a “vested interest in racial issues and issues of identity” meet to advocate for involvement with the advisory board. He also plans to work with the Vice Provost for Education’s office, as well as students and staff interested in holding conversations about race and identity, to ensure there is programming on this topic next year.
His and Muraina’s disappointment has also raised concerns about the lack of student involvement in theme year and Penn Reading Project book selections.
While anyone can submit an idea for a book or a theme year, the Council of Undergraduate Deans picks the book and the theme to recommend to the Provost’s office. There is only one student member of this council, the chair of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education, although the president of the Undergraduate Assembly is also invited.
“Based on the fact that this situation came about, there could be more student involvement in the theme year process,” said Undergraduate Assembly President and College senior Joyce Kim.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that Langston Hughes was a musician. Hughes was a poet and lyricist.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.