Joe conducts an Epic Workshop!

WhereistheEpic (13)

Missed the workshop?  No worries!  Here is a copy of Joe’s talking notes. If you read these notes, all you will have missed is Joe’s singing!

Where’s the Epic?  Singing the Birth of a Multiethnic Nationality

Monday, February 25, 12-1 p.m.

Pond View Room, Slep Center

[Interrupt the Introduction Abruptly]

Thank you Professor Simpson. But today we will be discussing the creation of an Epic. And a traditional epic needs no introduction. An epic is created by a long chain of listeners, readers, embellishments, and lyricists. Today’s epic is not about me it is about you the audience.

But before we get underway, I would like to thank everyone involved.

Thanks to the Students first.  Today’s Epic will be mostly about the students, as you will see. The American Epic can not be sung without reference to students.

I guess I should also thank the various administrators in the wing tip wing who divert the funds and institutional priority toward important programs such as this Annual African-American Read-In.

Many thanks must go to the Committee Members, for example Professor Megan Simpson here, who, during the busiest parts of her academic year, chips in considerable effort, organizational talent, and precious time every year to make this happen.

To the IT gurus and facilities staff who make it all work,

And finally, my thanks to all of you who decided to show up and participate in this epic writing workshop, My students in Hist 465 who are currently teaching me about the Civil Rights Struggles, and all of the other students who have offered to participate in today’s Workshop. Finally, I would especially like to thank Isaac Davis, our blues harpist.

Thanks You!

[Isaac plays 3 minutes of blues guitar]

As you will learn today, you are all heroes. Civilization as we know it depends on what we will be doing here today.   Because a nation’s epic is so important to the way that nation understands itself, and frankly, we are currently operating without a credible national epic.

Today’s program is entitled “Where’s the Epic?” But to say it correctly, like an epic bard, there needs to be a little outrage and indignation in the question. A good portion of national pride and boasting also.  After all this is our nation this is our Epic.


I guess I had better explain myself.

[Slide Define Epic]

The word sorta means an old and traditional word poem. It is a literary genre much older than most other ways we still explain ourselves to ourselves.

[Slide  Predates Western Civilization]

Predates Youtube, predates the way we write history, its older than the novel, the short story and even the philosophy essay.

It probably even predates writing itself!

For example, I said that epics predate western civilization. The idea of such a place we mean when we say “the west” may have formed around a Homeric epic we call Illiad.   The losers of the Ionian Revolt began calling themselves western and the west east division line began to form between the Persians and the refugee Ionians who were scattering into the Mediterranean world.

But an Epic is not just any old poem. It can’t be about any old thing. An epic has to be, well, EPIC!

We have all heard the phrase “Epic Proportions.” Its scope should be broad. It should cover many years and places. “Civilization as we know it” should depend on the plot twists in an epic poem.

Can’t say epic. you gotta say EPIC.

Nations and Cultures become what they are because of what happens in their epics.  And the characters in epics are heroes, villains, deities, and ordinary people performing noble deeds and misdeeds.

Luck, good fortune, divine intervention, sometimes human cleverness, hard work, striving, these are the factors that determine the eventual outcome of an epic. But always just in the nick of time.

So an epic is what a culture or nation or civilization thinks of itself. Our Epics provide us with our national or civic identity. So again I ask, Where’s the American Epic?

[Slide  Narrative Therapy]

There is a rather new field of psychiatric-therapy that asks patients to focus on their internal narratives.  These internal narratives are the stories people tell themselves about who they are and why they are that way.   Because, as it turns out, identity itself is comprised of the stories we tell ourselves. Its pretty complex.

But in similar ways, entire civilizations get their identities from the stories they tell themselves about themselves, their Epics.

This process of writing and telling an epic is a sort of group therapy, but for a nationality. Just like with individuals, contradictory narratives, efforts to intentionally mislead, erasing from memory of uncomfortable events, these kinds of inferior narratives lead to irrational self understanding and behaviors.

Philosophers since about the time of the French Revolution have been explaining the idea of the self as the intersection of our experiences and our ideas about those experiences, our narratives. So at the risk of too much emphasis here, who we are is really the stories we use to explain ourselves. Civilizations too. So a Civilization IS its epic.

[Slide  Conventional Form of an Epic]

There are conventions for epics.  Remember, rules are for sports and board games, not for art and innovation. These Epic conventions are guidelines only, not rules. In fact, as in any other form of art, it is usually a requirement to break the existing conventions just a little. Because the so called rules for any art form demarcate the most likely opportunity for a next major breakthrough!

But Epics are USUALLY told in an elevated language, rather formal, stiff and serious. After all, this is who we are and why. This is our Civilization as we know it, as we sing it.

So the only modesty usually found in an epic is during the invocation, when the narrator is calling for divine assistance in telling the important story.

The plot of an Epic usually begins right in the middle of the action, just like history itself if you think about it. History is not in the past. It is happening here in the present as you the historian tries to explain evidence from the past. So beginning the story right in the middle of the action relieves the teller from any need to pick the one true beginning, since history is like a river and has many sources feeding into it.

An epic also has an invocation which we will discuss shortly, and there are usually fulfilled prophecy and a harp all rolled up in it.

By way of example, I am going to ask our blues harpist to kick off a song that includes both a prophecy AND a blues harp. Nice and slow, its going to be a long walk to Birmingham… So just to put us into the right frame of collective mind, let’s sing a song that I would like to nominate as our American National Anthem, of this America that we are presently describing.

[Handout Words to “We Shall Overcome”]

[Slide Calliope gives her harp to Hesiod]
Here is a marble portrayal of one of the greatest Epic poems ever written.  A young shepherd named Hesiod begins to sing the story of that day, about three thousand years ago, when he saw the nine Muses of Helicon bathing and dancing in the fields.

Here you can see Clio (stern muse of History) comforting her passionate sister Calliope (the Muse of Poetry.)  Calliope has just given her harp to Hesiod. You can’t tell here if Calliope is taken by the young shepherd or if she already regrets handing over her guitar.

But as History keeps Poetry on a narrow path, the story of creation gets told by the lucky shepherd with his new Heliconian Blues Harp.

[Two minutes of Isaac Davis on the Blues Harp]

[Slide Invocation Examples]

Epics begin, as I have suggested already, with invocations, pleas for divine assistance in telling the story.  Most invocations call on Muses for this kind of help.

Here we have the invocation from Edmund Spenser’s Fairy Queen, addressed to Sir Walter Raleigh at about the time his lost colony project was getting lost at the Outer Banks.

England was growing in influence, soon it would even challenge Spain, the oppressive superpower of its day.

Trivia Question:  What did little England have that we do not have today?

Yep, an Epic!

[Slide Whitman’s _Leaves of Grass_]

You may be saying to yourself right now, “No way, Joe. We have American Epics.”
Here is one example you may be thinking of. Here is the invocation from one version of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Leaves of Grass contains a lovely epic poem. He was a talented poet, a terrific observer, notice that he made some significant advances for our project today.

In his first few lines we see that the American is an independent person, conflicted between competing ideas of Liberty AND Democracy. In the middle you can see that he meant to refer to both male and female Americans, equally. That was quite an advance for the epic of his day.

But Whitman’s epic does not yet sing the American Nationality that we need and want to celebrate now, today, out there, in here, that Multi-Ethnic, Multi-Doctrinal idea that we mean when we use the term, “American.”

We could spend a good bit of time trying to define the word “American.”  And we would finally come to an agreement that we meant a place, not a skin color, not an eye color, not an ethnicity, not a religion. An American is a human who lives in a place we call America. That is the identity we still need an epic to explain for us.

So how would we properly invoke an American Muse when we write today’s American Epic?

First, we must be respectful of diverse religious as well as non-religious belief systems. After all, this is America we are singing about! It would be wrong to privilege one religion, skin color, sexual preference, ethnicity over any other one. This would lead us to an inferior epic, a song that would not work for all Americans and would therefore not be moral.


And if nothing else, an Epic must be moral. Remember, we are creating our national narrative, our identity. Our grandchildren’s grandchildren might be influenced by what we accomplish here today.

So we would never invoke deities whose public worship would insult or exclude other Americans among us. That’s the point of this narrative, right? To celebrate inclusivity.

But this does not mean we can’t have an invocation. It does not leave us without a National Epic.   Finding a rich enough and respectful enough narrative to encompass THIS America, that’s what we are doing here today.

So let’s be respectful and tolerant as a minimum standard for our invocation.

We can celebrate our diversity, sure! But when speaking in the voice of a public and tax supported public institution, let’s not privilege one kind of religious belief, skin color, sexual preference, or family origin.

Slide  American Muses Nominated]

Here is a slide that presents my own nomination of a group of American Muses who together represent today’s America in its full epic proportions.

Just to be clear, and respectful, let me emphasize that these American Muses are not gods, or are they offspring of gods. That’s what makes them Heroic. These people were people!

You will notice that some of these Muses are Men, some are Women. They have various kinds of ethnicity markers, family origins, cultural identities, religious views, and cultural traditions. But they are all Americans. This is the American Epic we sing today.

But to elevate these people into Muses, let’s let them each represent some of the most important American virtues.

The term of art for such a promotion is “apotheosis.”   We will spend centuries determining which of these virtues are most important for the American Nationality. For this workshop, lets use my list until the longer and more powerful “oral tradition” figures this out for good.

This “apotheosis” the promotion of a historical person into Muse, a symbol representative of a virtue, is the brass ring, the big ticket. Its even better than when they drop the word “Assistant” from your business card or give you a company jet. Its bigger than the Nobel Prize, its better than several billion “likes” on your Social Media post.

So how would an American Epic’s invocation sound?

Isaac, please give me a little 12 bar blues intro, somewhere near the key of Epsilon.

{Slide  Invocation of American Muses]
Down that slippery slope to Hawthorn, thought I had my point of view,

Walked into the classroom, just to lecture all of you,

But standing at the podium, I found I need to think it through.

Took myself to Eiche wandered through the dusty open stacks

Read everything in History there, ordered more off the CAT

What I got there was confusion, hoping you can help me back.

Went out to the duck pond, fell down on my knees,

I put my hands together, begged the Muses, pretty please.

Said, “Sing clearly for me Muses, tell Joey what “American” really means?


Did you get that last part?  Tell Joey what American really means.

When that happens in an Epic we call it the thematic statement

Its usually right there in the invocation.

That thematic statement explains the reason for the Epic. This is what we are writing this narrative to explain,  Its what the oral tradition will be explaining over the next thousand years.

[Slide 12:    The Word American ]

What it means when we put the word “American” next to the words People, Government, Traditions, History, Literature, Justice, Lifestyle, Music, Pop

Culture,  Family, Citizen etc.

What does that word really mean?

First of all, American is an idea. Turns out, it is a very flexible idea that has not always meant what it means today.

From the American Revolution until the 20th Century the legal meaning only included European and British immigrants and some of their offspring who lived  in North America.  Everyone else had to be hyphenated. Segregated. Moved into a footnote.

Sometime after World War I, the courts commenced, just started, interpreting the founding documents to include more and more people as a part of the American project.

And still, many of the States resisted, keeping the faith in their tested  and failed notions of States Rights,  thereby choking the American Epic of its sincerity and morality.

How could this happen?

That older epic told the inaccurate story of  a competition

between so called, “real Americans” vs the troublesome   hyphenated Americans.

The American Nation, in this inaccurate narrative, became a nation and a power through God’s grace,  innovation, hard work, family traditions and big glorious wars.

[Slide 13:   Birth of A Nation]



You can still get a taste of this old narrative, if you can stand it, by watching “The Birth of A Nation,” a 1915 silent film, the first  motion picture shown at the White House, it was endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson.

“Birth of A Nation” masqueraded as an epic providing America with an ill fitting and horribly inaccurate identity.     It did this by telling a story of the supremacy of one race, one  gender, and one religion. It left our nation in serious need of some narrative therapy.

These were the same sort of things that got Europe into its Holocaust,   the inability to sing an accurate and inclusive  Nationality.

While Europe slipped into Fascism, the US needed some group  narrative therapy of its own to expand our American Identity to include all Americans.   Otherwise we were in jeopardy of creating our own mono-cultural hell here.

We needed our Epic.

[Slide :   Where’s the Epic?]

I ask you again. And I think you are getting the point. Where is the epic? What story do we need to tell ourselves if we wanted to sing today’s America:

that wonderful multi-ethnic, multi-doctrinal, lifestyle tolerant, freedom loving people who refuse to place their individual rights at the altar of mob rule?

Then your epic’s title could not be better than the theme selected for this year’s African American Read In.   “From the 1963 March into the Millennium”

[Slide :  In Medias Res]

What story should we tell and where to begin it?


Right smack in the middle of the action. That’s where this Epic would begin. And did I mention that this story is about students?

On that cold April day in 1963, things are not looking so good for the Movement and for Martin Luther King’s leadership.

In fact, the affiliation between the various organizations seemed to be unraveling.  The Southern Christian Leadership Council (MLK’s national organization) was calling the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (largely comprised of college students from Atlanta and Nashville, but with volunteers  from campuses all over North America)

SCLC was calling SNCC “Too Radical.”  SNCC is publicly calling Martin Luther King “The Lawd” jokingly implying that he has set himself up as the head of the   movement.

SNCC was having difficulty raising funds and getting volunteers.

Many of the volunteers it was receiving lately had not been  trained in non-violence. Some did not even understand the strategy.

Many of the newer volunteers wanted the glory of being a  Freedom Rider, or a sit in participant, but they did not have what it takes to accept insults with dignity, or to suffer violence without retaliation.

Even the faithful close circle of advisers around Martin Luther King, the SCLC, were cooling off, disengaging, making statements about meeting violence with violence.  King’s strategy of non-violence was hanging in the balance.

After Albany, last year, where thousands of volunteers had been  arrested, most of them were left in jail and doing time on chain gangs,while someone had mysteriously bailed out Martin Luther King, it seemed too  easy to forget  that King had already been  arrested twelve times over the past decade, all for his  activities with the cause of human rights.

But possibly for these reasons, a little shame on King’s part, or  the short memory of his organization, King had spent his Good Friday in a public demonstration in  Birmingham.   This time he knew in advance that he was likely to  receive an extended jail sentence.

[Slide 16  ]

Commissioner “Bull Connor”

The segregationist Police Commissioner,  Bull Connor, obtained   an injunction against such protests.  But King, the SCLC, and SNCC decided that   this was it. All the chips were in. They were quite desperate.

This was their chance to fill the Birmingham jails  and prove the efficacy of non-violent protest as a strategy.

They hoped that the full jails and the increased costs of  enforcement would cause the City of Birmingham to  negotiate for an end to segregated libraries, restaurants, movie theaters and taxi cabs.

But it was not working.   King, himself, had been arrested.   He was being held incommunicado in isolation. No phones,  no reporters, no phone calls to the Attorney General.

This time, he could not even talk privately with his own attorney.

Worse, there had not been a large enough group of  volunteers. The jails were not full. And it looked as if there were no more volunteers.

Was it over?

[Slide:  Children’s Crusade]

Then something quite amazing and very unexpected happened. Did I mention that this story included students?

First  the High Schools students, some say led by SNCC organizers, went to the protest instead of school that morning.   With the cameras rolling the singing, peaceful, students are herded into police wagons. Thousands stay the night in jails.

Hundreds of thousands watch on the National TV News.

The next day, older students, fresh from the prior arrests, go right back to the protest line and are arrested again. Then they were joined by Junior High students and even  some elementary students.   While the cameras rolled.

[Slide :  The City Over-reacts]

As Birmingham City Police used attack dogs and  high pressure fire hoses against protesters,   children continued to offer themselves for constant  arrest.

The American public sickened at the sight.     Into this public relations mess (for the City) MLK’s “Letter From The Birmingham Jail” runs in   several national newspapers.

[  Students from Hist 465 “Civil Rights Movement” Course read Excerpts  ]



This Children’s Crusade is that In Medias Res moment for the Epic you will be writing, and your children will be writing, and your grandchildren will be singing.

[Slide 22:   March on Washington]

There would be many other protests, arrests, and demonstrations in the years to come. But something very  important had changed in America.

The metamorphosis happened with the Children’s Crusade and with the publication of the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” The American Public had seemingly begun to agree with the  justice of the cause of The Civil Rights Movement.

The American Nation and the word American would be stretched to include African-Americans.  And America would be much improved by the addition, and by the improved nomenclature.

That August the Kennedy Administration quickly changed its view on the delayed application the March on Washington DC, later in August.  Bobby Kennedy let it be known that the application for the parade permit should be approved.

This is that 1963 March that is mentioned in the Theme of this  year’s African-American Read In.  Historians call  it “The March For Jobs And Freedom.”

We will always remember it as the “I Have A Dream” Speech.

But when you write the American Epic, remember it does  not start with some appropriately permitted march on   the Nation’s capitol.

There are many heroes in that Epic of  America.  Some were ministers, some were politicians, some were  teachers, some were armed robbers. There were all genders, all races, all religions and some with no religion at all.

But in the very middle of things, right where you start to sing your Epic of America and when you teach  your children to sing it to their children,   don’t you dare start your story with the March in August.

Don’t forget those Students and the Children’s Crusade.  Because the American Epic will always begin and end with students.




About jmp479

For years I taught History and Philosophy at a community college in Central Pennsylvania. Now I am learning all sorts of things, from growing veggies and fruit, to fixing small engines and maintaining home systems. I am learning to live deliberately. Still love to hear from my past students, though. So drop me a line and tell me what you are up to.
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