Carolivia Herron Review of Canoedling In Cleveland

Carolivia Herron

Carolivia Herron

 

Summer of 1960. Three white teenagers, Jeff, Randy and Lori are canoeing the rivers near Cleveland over summer vacation. After Randy mentions an item from the day’s newspaper — Elvis leaving the army, Jeff and Lori turn the conversation to other news, the sit-ins that are happening all over the south. Jeff wonders why there are no Negroes in their neighborhood, and Lori soon joins Jeff in expressing sympathy for the protesters’ goal of racial integration.

Jeff is the mover and protagonist of the story, he loves canoeing, and has made a $100.00 bet with his older brother, Brett, that he would canoe all of the nearby rivers before the end of the summer. He needs to partner with his friend Randy who has access to his brother Garth’s canoe, and they need a third person who can drive to pick them up at landings. They chose Lori, a brainy and attractive girl, to be their less than equal partner – but Lori quickly maneuvers her way to equality with the two bickering bundles of testosterone.

The concern about the absence of Negroes living in their neighborhood keeps coming up, so Jeff and Lori decide to interview local housing professionals about the absence of racial integration. These interviews, with a banker, a real estate developer, and a real estate agent (Randy’s father) are a counterpoint to the canoeing trips. The discomfort of the housing professionals regarding the non-acceptance of Negroes, plays out on a backdrop of meticulous and enthralling descriptions of canoeing by the three teenagers. Jeff also interviews Helen, the African American maid who cleans his family’s home, and along with Lori interviews a hardware store owner, and a scholar from the Historical Society.

The interviews are distinctive in that the teenagers are entirely believable. They are not dazzlingly brilliant, and yet their questioning is both forthright and young. They ask the questions that all of us should ask but rarely do when we notice the absence of ethnic groups in our neighborhoods and society.

Other high points of this young adult novel are: Jeff’s storytelling for his two younger brothers, the non-stereotyped portrayal of Walter, the African American teenager who befriends Jeff, and the unexpected honesty of Jeff in his conversations with Walter. It is disarming to hear Jeff say to Walter, ‘“You scared me too when I first saw you,” I say. “Why?” “’Cause you’re Negro.” “Why does that scare you?” “I don’t know. I’ve never been around Negroes.”’

Or: Walter says, ‘“You know sometimes I think you’re using us, Jeff.” “Darn right I am. And we’ve got to keep using each other until we can get these A-people {adults} to change, and all the Randys and Rollys and everyone like them.”’ Also, the wider view of the African American community rings true.

Morris’ Canoedling in Cleveland does not try to be what it isn’t – it does not try to be a sociological solution presented by flawless characters. Sometimes Jeff bumbles – for instance, when he wants to walk up to Negroes in the white community and ask them why they are there. He doesn’t seem to realize that his question would link him with the racist whites he is fighting against. It takes time to learn.

The novel also has a powerful portrayal of pollution – pollution that seemed inevitable and not particularly important in 1960. Some of the rivers are literally poison. I enjoyed the compelling, realistic, beautiful descriptions of canoeing scenes – not leaving out any of its dangers.

I did have a couple of unanswered questions about the plot and setting. Helen, the African American maid who cleans Jeff’s family house, has a teaching license. I would like to know why she is not teaching. Also, in his notes Morris discusses his model for the African American church he describes. Morris writes:

Good Samaritan Baptist church in the story is fictitious but was inspired by Shiloh Baptist church in Cleveland, which was originally built as a synagogue and which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Architecturally, I drew Good Samaritan in the New England style with a steeple over the main entrance, while Shiloh is a domed structure, modeled after the Panthéon in Paris, with six Roman columns supporting a portico over the entrance.

As a personal preference and a way of maintaining history, I would have preferred that Good Samaritan retain the Judaic Romanesque/Classic architecture. I enjoy driving through a city and noting the exchange from early Judaic to late Christian ownership. The fact that the church was originally a synagogue also shows that Jews were willing to sell to African Americans.

Richard Morris’ Canoedling in Cleveland is an unusual and stimulating coming of age story. It is filled with questions we are still answering, it reasserts that seekers don’t have to be perfect in order to act, and the scenes are beautiful. I love the moment when Jeff comes up out of the water in front of Walter. I won’t give it away, you should read it.

 

About Carolivia Herron:

Dr. Herron is an author and educator who lives in Washington, DC. She writes fiction and nonfiction, develops EpicCenter multimedia educational programs and teaching materials, directs PAUSE children’s writing clubs, and teaches and advises students for The Learning Community International.

Carolivia is best known as the author of the children’s book, Nappy Hair, which caused a major nationwide controversy about multicultural education and is still banned in some communities.

She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory from the University of Pennsylvania in 1985. She has held professorial appointments at Harvard University, Mt. Holyoke College, Chico State University, and the College of William and Mary. , and is currently Visiting Project Humanities Distinguished Scholar at Arizona State University.

Biography

Carolivia was born in the Anacostia neighborhood in southeast Washington DC. As a child she was drawn to Jewish traditions and later learned from her great-grandmother that the family ancestry included Sephardic Jews. She converted to Judaism and is active in her synagogue and with Jewish communities in West Africa.

Her current focus is on EpicCenter Stories and EpicCenter Publishing. The EpicCenter was founded in 1986 at Harvard University as the Epicenter for the Study of Epic and Oral Literature. Its goal was to use the epic stories of distinct cultures to increase knowledge and decrease prejudicial boundaries between groups by celebrating the cultural stories and connecting the academic disciplines to diverse living communities. In our inaugural year the Epicenter sponsored academic programs that brought Homeric epic poetry and contemporary hip hop onto the same stage.

Since 1986 Carolivia has developed EpicCenter Stories into a multi-media educational curriculum using 25 instructional modules to teach a variety of subjects that also address the standards of the core curriculum. These modules use classic and contemporary epics, group stories, and the diverse cultures of the learners themselves as a multimedia framework as the foundation for learning modules  that can be used online, in the classroom, and in communities.

In 2013 the goal of the EpicCenter is to:

  • Establish model classrooms in schools and community centers as demonstration projects for at least three EpicCenter modules
  • Begin production of curriculum materials that include: live performances, electronic and face to face instruction, and field trips

In conjunction with EpicCenter Stories, she has started a second venture, EpicCenter Publishing that publishes eBooks for writers and scholars, especially those of African communities. She works extensively with programs supporting Jews of Color, including Shivat Zion Ethiopian Jews of Israel, Kulanu, Be’chol Lashon.

Teaching and Educational Programs

Professor Herron makes school appearances as part of the Pen/Faulkner Writers in Schools and Everybody Wins programs.

Carolivia also gives workshops as part of her multimedia educational program, EpicCenter Stories. These programs use classic and contemporary epics, group stories, and the diverse cultures of the learners themselves as a multimedia framework for learning modules online and in communities.

She used her expertise in classical European literature to provide educational material to the Education Division of the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC for their Africana production of the Oedipus Trilogy during their 2001-2002 season.

Awards and Appointments

Writing her thesis on “Milton and the Epic Literary Genre,” Carolivia received a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory from the University of Pennsylvania where she also received a Master’s degree in Creative writing. She holds two additional degrees in English Literature, a Master of Arts from Villanova University and a Bachelor of Arts from Eastern University.

Carolivia has been a professor or visiting scholar in English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, Mount Holyoke College, Brandeis University, Hebrew College (Brookline, MA), California State University, Chico, Hollins University, University of Binghamton, Grinnell College, the College of William and Mary, Arizona State University, and several Central African universities.

1995 American Library Association selects Thereafter Johnnie (Random House, 1991) as one of the “Fifty Books That Must Be Read By Adults,”1990-1995.Review in Washington Post: “Powerful, poetic… openly erotic… it has some of the grandeur of purpose of Ulysses, reaching, as it does, back to stories of early slavery and forward to an abandoned Washington.”

2008 Commission from the Washington National Opera and the Washington Performing Arts Society to write the Libretto for an opera. Let Freedom Sing: The Story of Marian Anderson premiered in 2009 with a score by Bruce Adolphe.

March 2010  Exceptional Women in the Arts Award for Operatic Arts from Council Member Muriel Bowser, Washington DC.

2011-2012 Distinguished  Visiting Scholar. Project Humanities, Arizona State University. Worked with Dr. Neal Lester, Vice President and Professor of Knowledge Enterprise Development, and Dr. James Blasingame, Professor and Director of English Education, creating K-through-college curriculum related to her writings.

Publications for Children

1997  Nappy Hair (Knopf)

2007  Always an Olivia (Kar Ben Publishing)

2012 Little Georgia and the Apples (EpicCenter Stories)

Publications for Adults

1991 Thereafter Johnnie (Random House). Review in Washington Post : “Powerful, poetic . . . openly erotic . . . it has some of the grandeur of purpose of Ulysses, reaching, as it does, back to stories of early slavery and forward to an abandoned Washington.”

1991 Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimké (Oxford University Press) included the 40 volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Woman Writers.

2010 “What is African American Epic Tradition?” in Rooms Outlast Us, Vol. 2, 2010. Since this journal is not readily available it will be posted in its entirety on the website once the publisher gives permission. If you would like to receive an announcement when the essay is available please register on the home page to receive updates.

2012 Asenath and Our Song of SongsBeing edited for publication by Random House.

Writings in Progress for Adults and Young Adults

African American Epic Tradition, three-volume scholarly work under contract to Stanford University Press.

Early African American Poetry, anthology contracted to Vintage Press.

Peacesong, autobiographical fiction, excerpts published in Bridges MagazineUnder One Canopy, and elsewhere.

Music, Lyrics, Librettos

2005 The Journey of Phillis Wheatley, Lyrics. Nkeiru Okoye composer. Commissioned by Boston Landmarks Orchestra. Premier Boston Commons, 2005.

2009 Let Freedom Sing: The Story of Marian Anderson, The Libretto. Composer: Bruce Adolphe. Commissioned by the Washington National Opera and the Washington Performing Arts Society. Premier in 2009 at the Atlas Theatre, Washington DC. Produced in several locations with support from the Washington National Opera, The Washington Performing Arts Society, The Takoma Theatre Conservancy, and the Northgate Kiwanis Club of Washington, DC and Maryland.

2011 “We Are Free,” song lyrics in the cantata Reach Out, Raise Hope, Change Society. Composer Bruce Adolphe. Commissioned by the University of Michigan School of Social Work. Premier University of Michigan, November 2011.

2013 An Ocean Can Dry into Silence, Lyrics. Composer: Ellen Harrison. Premier Cincinnati, April 28, 2013.

Musical Connections In Progress

The composer, Bruce Adolphe and Carolivia Herron are planning a new collaboration to create a full-length opera from her book, Always An Olivia. The opera will trace the Olivias from the shores of Tripoli in 1805 to the US Civil War near Portsmouth, Virginia, and tells the story of her Sephardic Jewish, West African, and Geechee heritage that she was told in Portsmouth, Virginia by her great-grandmother Olivia Smith.

Community Involvement

Carolivia is an active member of her synagogue, Tifereth Israel of Washington, DC, and is the synagogue’s liaison for Social Action programs in Africa.

She is Vice President of the Takoma Theatre Conservancy and Program Director of Northgate Kiwanis Club of Washington, DC and Maryland.

She is an active member of Street to Street, an organization that provides jobs, training, and basic education for Washington, DC residents. Street to Street also partners with Carolivia’s company, EpicCenter Stories, to publish electronic books.

 

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