Witness: Human Rights and the Arts

By Eric Cherry

I often find myself wading through history’s blood-stained swamp of violence in search of fleeting sources of hope. This experience speaks more, I believe, to the way in which history is recorded than to the human condition itself. For the very act of canonizing authoritative perspectives in turn produces those marginal narratives of overcoming hardship that slip beneath the cracks. Over time, I have discovered that some of the most powerful, yet heretofore invisible, accounts of human faith carry with them creative outpourings of unparalleled ‘beauty’ – Negro Spirituals, underground anti-Nazi films, resistance literature of the colonized, etc. It is with this appreciation for the arts that I eagerly attended Witness: Arts, Humanities, and Human Rights. To witness is to testify personal knowledge, to communicate wit out of the depths of subjective experience. In celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Humanities Center and the Offices of President and Provost at Harvard University transformed the act of witness into an experiential event of artistic and humanistic creativity. Holding up the 27th Article protecting cultural life in community, the organizers sought to unveil the many ways in which emotional and imaginative testimony serves an aspirational role in transforming human relations. Subversive agency and empathetic intercession empower the arts to open up new worlds of interpretation and possibility. Organized by post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha, the March 3rd event included interactive dance with ballet legend Damian Woetzel, original compositions by revered cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and a reading by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, as well as many other international participants. In the face of global economic recession, uncompromising arms races and relentless ethnic, religious and gender-based brutality, the evening intentionally held up the political impulse of artistic expression to give voice to those wisps of hope so often hidden from history.

About the Author

Eric Cherry

Eric was the Director of the UUA’s International Office since August 2007. Prior to this Eric served for 12 years as a parish minister with UU congregations in Burlington, Iowa and N. Easton, Massachusetts. Eric has long been involved in the UU Partner Church movement, serving as the English...


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