Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It is my great honor and pleasure to welcome you to this very special panel and to the historic series of events that we are hosting here on the UI campus this week.

The University of Iowa has long been known as a center for creativity and the arts. Our importance as a center for the written word harkens back to a long-standing tradition of innovative work in literary criticism, to the development and creation of the Writers’ Workshop, and to the founding of the Department of Theatre Arts by E. C. Mabie in 1920.

Those traditions come together this week as, for the first time in history, Ralph Ellison’s groundbreaking novel Invisible Man comes before the public in a new medium. While the stage play will not debut until next year in Chicago, we will be privileged to enjoy a public reading of the adaptation at the end of this week. Before that, though, we will benefit from an unprecedented week long series of discussions, panels, talks, and programs that will put the novel, the play adaptation, and the history of African Americans at Iowa in context. I thank adaptor Oren Jacoby, producer/director Christopher McElroen, Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson, and English Professors Lena Hill and Michael Hill, as well as all the other university community members who made this week possible, for their talent, dedication, and vision that have made “Iowa and Invisible Man” possible.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Ellison’s Invisible Man changed the world. Its bold, frank portrayal of racial identity in the modern world shocked many into awareness of African American alienation and gave voice to millions of the voiceless, the invisible. Ellison’s protagonist says at one point that “there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.” While the young man chooses to be invisible and not wake the sleepwalkers at this point in the novel, we know that it was—and remains—necessary to awaken everyone to the reality of social conditions that oppress. Invisible Man did, and continues to do, just that.

Today we are also welcoming a very special group of guests on this panel, “Black Hawkeyes: Midcentury Memories of the University of Iowa.” These are alumni who attended Iowa in those turbulent times when Ellison’s novel came out and some years following—a time of great difficulty for African Americans in our country and certainly at Iowa.

The University of Iowa has many proud moments in its history that show a progressive attitude and tradition toward our African American community members. Alexander Clark graduated from the Iowa law school in 1879, and is believed to be the first African American in the nation to earn a law degree. Fred “Duke” Slater, who came to Iowa in 1918, was Iowa’s first black football player to earn All-American honors, was considered by many the finest tackle ever to play at Iowa, and went on to become a judge.

We are also proud to have a connection with Ralph Ellison himself—his wife, Fanny, graduated with a theater degree from Iowa in 1936. Helen Lemme, who worked as a lab research technician in the UI’s Department of Internal Medicine, was a well-known civil rights advocate locally and nationally who fought for greater representation of Black voters at the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Philip Hubbard, who received a PhD from Iowa in 1954 and became Iowa’s vice president for student services and academic affairs, was the first African American vice president at any Big Ten university. A former associate professor of education, Cecelia Foxley, created the UI’s first Office of Affirmative Action in 1972, served as its first director, and wrote an Affirmative Action Plan that was the first of its kind among the Big Ten institutions.

However, despite these proud moments and impressive historical figures, a list like this that touts our achievements often fails to account for our failures as well. While Fanny McConnell Ellison did graduate from Iowa with a theatre degree, she was not allowed to perform onstage because of her race. While Helen Lemme is known as a civil rights pioneer, she and her husband Allyn also used their Iowa City home to provide room and board to African American students at the university—because African American students were not allowed to live in Iowa’s dormitories until 1946.

I hope that our panelists had some good experiences here at Iowa and came away from our university with strong educational credentials that have stood them well in life. But I also know that they will share with you the reality of life at Iowa in the mid-century—the struggles, the denied opportunities, the oppression they suffered because they were African American. They will share their own invisibility at Iowa in the mid-century.

No doubt there were many moments in our panelists’ experience at Iowa when they felt unwelcome—and no doubt intensely so. So as we greet them on their arrival to campus here today, I want to extend the warmest possible welcome on behalf of the University of Iowa—an enthusiastic, unqualified, and very, very proud welcome back to their campus. We are grateful that you are here, and we thank you so much for sharing your experience with us today.