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Brandeis student discusses the fabric that comprises social identity

By Brianna Cummings

Section: Arts

November 4, 2016

A group of students, professors and members of the community gathered in the Rose Art Museum to discuss culture, identity and creativity on Tuesday, Nov. 1. LaShawn Simmons ’18 and Brandeis artist-in-residence Jane Sapp led the discussion.

Sapp is known for her gospel-inspired music. She began by talking about one’s identity and how it is shaped.

“If you are a tapestry, what are the threads that knit you: family, community, the world you are a part of, your struggles?”

Sapp explained to the group that there is a “me” and a “we” that are a part of social change and shaping one’s identity. Sapp made sure to emphasize the “we.” She explained how people have to connect to their community before they can start a change and cited how the Montgomery bus boycotts would have never happened if it were not for the community working together.

“Social transformation cannot take place unless we have the ‘we,’” Sapp said.

She also showcased her musical talent by performing songs on a keyboard and encouraging the audience to sing along with her. The songs were about being connected to one’s history and culture.

Simmons then took the spotlight again and read some poetry for the group. “I use creative writing for therapy,” she said.

She shared two pieces of writing, one titled “An Encounter with a Christian Student,” where she discusses turning to God during a struggle and another named “The South I Know”, where she described the South in rich detail.

After Simmons read her poems, she opened the discussion up to the audience by asking them what came to their mind when they thought about their culture or identity. The room filled with students, faculty and community members was not hesitant to share. A student spoke about how he and his family thought of the concept of trash differently than most because he was from East Germany, where people were less materialistic than people in America. Others students, with heritage from Cuba and Hungary, shared accounts of how excess in America is a bigger problem than in other countries. An audience member and her father shared how their heritage was tied to slavery.

“We tie our identity to drums,” said Charmine Santiago-Galdon, an activist, artist and educator. “There was slavery in Puerto Rico, and we use the drums as a way of letting go our anger towards the slave owners.”

Professor Cynthia Cohen, director of the Program in Peacebuilding in the Arts, also shared a personal anecdote about an item that had meaning in her life. Her grandmother lost family in the Holocaust and had a lace tablecloth that Cohen said had “loneliness in every stitch.” Cohen took the tablecloth to a men’s prison one day and watched as the prisoners gently handled the stitching and felt touched.

The rest of the evening was spent with people sharing how they shaped their identity. Many shaped their identity through their culture and upbringing. However, the audience also agreed that sometimes race and culture were not the only things to base one’s identity off of. Sapps shared how she was the only black student at her college and that she became close to a group of women on a farm in Kansas. Students agreed with Sapp’s point of view and shared instances where they had to look past race to make friendships.

The evening ended with LaShawn Simmons closing the discussion and citing how the fact that the crowd was surrounded by artwork influenced how they felt about sharing that evening. All agreed that the artwork did influence them in some way. Even after the event ended, everyone continued talking to each other and explaining their cultures.

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