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Center for the Arts and Humanities Blog

Image courtesy of Mayra Sierra-Rivera '20, Studio art major

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What a Humanities Professor Taught Me About Being Human; Or, Why I Remember the Day Arthur Miller Died

By Danielle Fuentes Morgan

It was the “anti” that caught my eye when I scanned the course catalog – “Anti-Fifties: Voices of a Counter-Decade.” In the spring of 2005, I was a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’d signed up for Dr. Robert Cantwell’s American Studies course on a whim – I was interested in the field of American Studies and, as an English major and African American studies minor, I had taken a few courses that were cross-listed in the department, but none that were primarily housed there. I wasn’t quite sure what American Studies was or how it connected to the humanities, but I figured if reading was involved I could probably stay afloat.

Danielle Fuentes Morgan

The author in the months following graduation; photo credit: Joshua Cousin

September 11th occurred a few weeks into my first year on campus and the country was well into what was being called “The War on Terror.” I had performed in the musical Hair the previous year and Green Day’s American Idiot could often be heard blasting from my apartment – protest pieces responding to the upheaval of the 1960s and the early 21st century, respectively – and I was hungry for additional texts and contexts that underscored the repeating and rhyming nature of history, for literature and art that provided a way of thinking through it and pushing against it, of what we call in literary studies “reading otherwise.” How does art respond to the moment, and how does the moment respond to art?

Almost twenty years later, I remember the class and I can recall the texts we read and the films we watched, but what is inexorably etched in my mind is Dr. Cantwell’s engagement with the material. The 1950s were 50 years gone, but in that room, the material was alive because Dr. Cantwell loved the subject so much. His enthusiasm was contagious, and the class was unmissable – classes moved quickly from students timidly reading selected passages aloud in the first weeks to robust student-led discussions Dr. Cantwell facilitated that continued in the hallways and during office hours. Back then at UNC, students were required to pass a swim test to graduate. Like most seniors, I waited until the final opportunity to take the test, which was scheduled right before Dr. Cantwell’s class. I’ll never forget being in the classroom with my hair still dripping wet, alongside a number of other soggy seniors who wouldn’t miss the chance to hear his lecture. 

A few weeks into the semester Arthur Miller, the prolific playwright who wrote Death of a Salesman which we’d finished reading only two weeks before, passed away. At the beginning of class, as we were getting settled in our seats, a student mentioned Miller’s death the day before. I still recall Dr. Cantwell’s gasp and the sadness on his face. The entire class fell silent in sympathetic grief. It was all so fully human – this collective heartache for a writer many of us in that room had just become familiar with a few weeks ago, and Dr. Cantwell’s vulnerability in taking a moment to mourn. This is what the humanities does at its best – reminds us of the connections we all share and provides us with a sense of collectivity. It was a small thing, but at 21 years old seeing a professor bridge the gap between the personal and the scholarly changed everything for me. It influenced the professor I am today.

Playwright Arthur Miller

Playwright Arthur Miller (source)

Throughout the semester, Dr. Cantwell offered opportunities for extra credit presentations on the authors we were reading, and I remember cautiously signing up to present on Beat poet and writer Allen Ginsberg. Perhaps surprising to my students today, I was a reserved and shy undergraduate, but my love for Ginsberg – and the safe, supportive environment Dr. Cantwell encouraged in his classroom – outweighed my nervousness. Reading Ginsberg’s iconic opening lines of Howl, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” made me want to shout in ecstatic agreement from my seat, “Allen, honey, who hasn’t?!” I presented to the class a biographical sketch of Ginsberg, emphasizing the variety of life experiences he’d had that led to such nuanced artistic output. As I was taking my seat, Dr. Cantwell commended me on my presentation. I blurted in response, “I think Allen Ginsberg is one of the most amazing and most important Americans in history” and felt my cheeks growing red at my own imprudence. Dr. Cantwell smiled warmly and simply said, “I do, too.” 

 Poet Allen Ginsberg dancing at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, 1967

Poet Allen Ginsberg dancing at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, 1967 (source)

Dr. Cantwell, by bringing his whole self to class every day taught me so much about how to be a professor and how to do work in the humanities. I learned that joy and rigor could exist simultaneously in academic spaces and that we can start with our love and move into our critique – that loving something means thinking about it in nuanced and complicated ways. He showed me that we can move from theory to practice, from the present to the past and back again to better understand our society and ourselves. Today, I encourage my own students to start from a place of love, to follow the threads of the texts that matter to them, to make what’s meaningful to them meaningful to others. For that lesson I get to share I will be forever grateful. 


humanities blog, Human & Community Ties, Arts & The Humanities in Times of Crisis


Dr. Morgan specializes in African American literature in the 20th and 21st centuries. She is interested in the ways that literature, popular culture, and humor shape identity formation. In particular, her research and teaching reflect her interests in African-American satire and comedy, literature and the arts as activism, and the continuing influence of history on contemporary articulations of Black selfhood. Her book, Laughing to Keep from Dying: African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century, was published in the Fall of 2020 with the University of Illinois Press as a part of the New Black Studies Series. Check out her website here