When the Devil Knocks

Picture at Flyleaf bookreading“The Devils in the Details,” UNC Gazette, March 17, 2015

Renee Alexander Craft has been going to Panama for 14 years, a few weeks at a time. She is fascinated by a small seaside town called Portobelo, its Afro-Latin residents and the special spin they give to their pre-Lenten Carnival. They call their version of Carnival season, “Congo Season.”

“It’s a small town that’s rich in culture and history. It’s a small town that also has been consistently touched by global trade and tourism,” said Alexander Craft. “The history is just so thick and interesting. I’m never at a loss for questions or great people to ask.”

“The Festival of the Black Christ,” WUNC’s The State of Things, October 20, 2011

Every October, tens of thousands of people make a pilgrimage to Portobelo, a quiet fishing town in Panama’s Colon Province, to visit El Cristo Negro – the Black Christ. It’s a life-sized figure of Jesus carved from dark mahogany. That powerful symbol, which has been in Portobelo since the 17th century, represents both the proud spirit and spiritual identity of this unique Central American community. Host Frank Stasio talks about the people of Portobelo, the Black Christ figure and the annual festival that celebrates it with Renee Alexander Craft.

I Will Love You Everywhere Always

iwlyea image 2“Coping with Grief through Words and Pictures,” UNC Spotlight, February 25, 2013

Through the story of Hope, a little girl who loses her mother to an illness, Alexander Craft helps grieving children understand their feelings and emotions. “One of the things I want people who read this book to come away with is a sense of how to reconnect with the people they love. It’s OK to feel funky and to feel bad. Grief takes time, but here are tools that can help you feel a little better right now. Sharing stories and memories are two such tools,” Alexander Craft says.

“Meet Renee Alexander Craft,” WUNC’s The State of Things, November 12, 2012

In 2008, Renee Alexander Craft lost one of her best friends to breast cancer. Craft says that cancer targets an individual, but when someone has it, that person’s whole community has it. As an act of healing, Craft wrote “I Will Love You Everywhere Always” (2012), to celebrate her friend’s life.

Craft has used writing throughout her life as an act of storytelling and survival. She performs this art in both her home state of North Carolina, as well as her second home, Portobelo, Panama. Host Frank Stasio talks with Renee Alexander Craft, an artist, ethnographer and professor of communications studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about her life and work.

Digital Portobelo

dp press“Digital Portobelo: Connecting Scholarship, Cultural Preservation and Community Engagement in Panama,” Carolina Arts & Sciences Magazine, Fall 2014

“Because this tradition was largely absent from discourses on black cultural performances in the Americas, I was clear the book would make a positive scholarly contribution, but I was also clear that it would not be very useful to the local community,” said Craft, who holds a joint appointment in global studies. “What they really wanted was a type of cultural preservation they could more directly access, but I didn’t know how to do that.” For years, Craft had given copies of photos and tapes to individual community members. Then, a presentation by UNC’s Digital Innovation Lab in spring 2012 began to unlock the possibility of making this wealth of material available to the people of Portobelo and the larger world through digitization.

“Enriching Public Culture: Several developments in the humanities this week are as newsworthy as the Pulitzers — and possibly more consequential in the long run, writes Scott McLemee,” Inside Higher Ed, April 20, 2016

Prestige has its privileges. When a well-established award is announced — as the 100th set of Pulitzer Prize winners was on Tuesday — it tends to consume the available limelight. Anything less monumental tends to disappear into its shadow.

But a couple of developments in the humanities this week strike me as being as newsworthy as the Pulitzers. If anything, they are possibly more consequential in the long run.

For one, we have the Whiting Foundation’s new Public Engagement Fellowship, which named its first recipients on Tuesday. The fellowship ought not to be confused with the Whiting Award, which since 1985 has been given annually to 10 authors “based on early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come.” The winners receive $50,000 each, along with, presumably, the professed esteem and subdued malice of their peers.