Birss program brings together campus and the Bristol community

Anya Dussault, News Editor

While in prison, Eldridge Cleaver wrote a memoir and a collection of essays titled “Soul on Ice,” detailing his thoughts and experiences regarding racism, oppression, crime, incarceration, love, gender, and more.

This book was selected for the 2018 John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Program, which is an annual program that seeks to honor a significant or culturally impactful book each year. Members of both the campus and the wider Bristol community are encouraged to read the book, which is typically chosen a year or two in advance.

“We try to find a book that is in an anniversary year, a great work of literature, and something that is relevant to issues today,” said Professor Christine Fagan, the Collection Management Librarian. Fagan has been involved in the program since it was started 18 years ago, and she curates the exhibit that is located on the first floor of the university library.

The exhibit will remain open during regular library hours through March 31. It includes intentionally chosen documents and photographs found in the Eldridge Cleaver archives that will hopefully bring Cleaver’s story to life. There is also a satellite exhibit located at the Rogers Free Library in Bristol in the hopes of encouraging people not only to read “Soul on Ice,” but also to come to campus to see the larger exhibit.

“This exhibit is representing Eldridge as an individual, as a writer, as a political activist; you get to know all facets of the person,” Fagan said, adding that the exhibit serves to “bring it all to life.”

Last October, Fagan and the two Birss student fellows traveled to University of California Berkley to identify which documents and photographs would be best for the exhibit.

Fagan recounted how wonderful it was to see the students in the archives, particularly when they came across files that seemed special. “The students’ eyes just lit up; it was priceless,” Fagan said.

The committee, chaired by Adam Braver, an associate professor in the Creative Writing Department and the RWU Library program director, is made up of members from across campus and even from the local Bristol community, including representation from the Department of English and Creative Writing; the Department of Modern Languages, Philosophy, and Classics; and the Rogers Free Library.

There is no doubt that “Soul on Ice” is a particularly timely book selection. Many of the issues that Cleaver talks about in the book are still issues today, which is part of the reason why the book was chosen.

“We want to make sure that all voices are represented,” Braver said in reference to the books that are selected each year. “We had heard the ‘Talking About Race, Gender, and Power’ might be a theme [for the university’s yearlong series], but that was just timing, and I think it fits really well.”

“Eldridge Cleaver was a complicated man and he was strong in the Black Panther Party, but he had been a convicted felon,” Fagan said. “He had issues that he worked through in prison, and that’s what ‘Soul on Ice’ is about. He was realizing that he had these demons that he had to deal with. [The book] is also about growing up African-American and how you’re treated. And sadly, many of the same issues are still happening. That’s what really drove us to pick the book, because we need to realize that 50 years ago this was happening, and here we are, with so many of the same issues that it’s disturbing.”

“I think in particular with this book, and it would be a different discussion with any other book, while the specifics are different, the issues are very present in our culture and strongly reflected in our culture. I think you can look at anything that’s going on, particularly in terms of race, and track it right back. And I think a lot of students don’t know that history, not that it’s even a history, but that they’re living [it],” Braver said.

Both Fagan and Braver expressed their excitement regarding the hard work that the students have put into the program, from designing the pamphlet to obtaining the files from the archives.

“There’s some ownership of it for students and not just us doing it and telling them it’s good for them,” Braver said.

There will be two reading groups hosted by the Rogers Free Library in Bristol on Feb. 28, one at 3 p.m. and the other at 7 p.m. Those who read the book are encouraged to participate in the community-wide discussion. On March 8, Eldridge’s former wife, Kathleen Cleaver, will be speaking on campus.