Singing the Same Songs


Jan|Feb 2012 Contents
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At a place with as long and rich a history as Penn’s, there’s never a shortage of organizational anniversaries to recognize. But in this issue we mark two milestones of special significance.

I was struck by a line in Molly Petrilla C’06’s engaging cover story, “Glee at 150,” that really brought home just how long the University’s oldest performing arts group has been around: “As the Civil War raged and a smallpox epidemic hit California, the Penn Glee Club prepared for its first performance.”

The club’s resilience over a century-and-a-half of cultural and musical fashions is pretty amazing. That not even the 1960s could kill it is attributed by Club members in large measure to the imagination, energy, and showmanship of the late Bruce Montgomery—“Monty”—who was its guiding spirit for nearly a third of its existence, from 1956 to 2000.

For the past 12 years—which in most contexts would not make you still the “new guy”—the club has continued to adapt and expand its repertoire under the direction of C. Erik Nordgren Gr’01. But whatever changes, there remains a fundamental link among all Glee Club members, he and several others told Molly. “When we have alumni events,” said one, “alumni come from across decades—many of whom have never met before—but they can all come together and sing the same songs.”

Among the storms sweeping through the 1960s, of course, were the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, which reached Penn’s campus in the form of repeated calls by black students for more courses relating to black subjects and increased faculty hiring. In 1971-72, these calls were answered with the establishment of the Afro American Studies Program. Later renamed the Center for Africana Studies, it is marking its 40th anniversary this year.

In “Gazetteer,” we lead with a story that includes an interview with Center Director Camille Charles and reports on a pair of panel discussions in which faculty, current students, and alumni shared their memories and their views on the value of Africana Studies.

Participants ranged in age from National Urban League CEO Marc Morial C’80, who recalled being a student worker for the program during its early days, when it was housed in a single room in Bennett Hall, to Azani Pinkney EAS’13, who is combining systems engineering with Africana Studies at Penn.

All spoke to the role the discipline has had in shaping their identities and world views, and how it also provided a sense of community for them in a not always sympathetic or comprehending environment. As poet and PhD candidate Joshua Bennett C’10 put it: “Africana studies let me know that I wasn’t the only person that has felt that way since I was 14 years old and first went to an all-white private school two hours away from where I lived.”

(We also give a Happy Birthday shout-out in “Gazetteer” to the School of Design’s Penn Praxis, which though a comparative youngster at 10, has already had a “profound” impact on city planning, according to Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron.)

Also in this issue, in “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Bars,” freelancer Caren Lissner Matzner C’93 reports on a growing Penn alumni-driven effort to provide the community known as nerds—once an insult, now something like a term of pride—with an excuse to gather, share arcane information, drink, and maybe even find a date.

And associate editor Trey Popp collects reactions from a range of University faculty on the origins, significance, and future of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon in “Penn Perspectives on the 99 Percent.” Of all the many insights offered, history professor Steven Hahn’s closing thought sticks with me most: “While most episodes like this don’t go anywhere, all phenomena that do go places start like this.”

—John Prendergast C’80

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