Back Roads: My Second Term in Sewanee at the University of the South

A way back has many directions. It might take you straight back in time. It might make you turn to see the tattered back door, instead of the shiny front entrance. It can mean meandering down to the roots of something. Or just: To go back home. During my second semester at Sewanee: The University of the South, I got the chance to experience quite a few back roads. Literal ones like the dirt roads of the Mississippi Delta, metaphorical ones like the paths history leaves, visible in the Arts.

The first big road sign of the Easter Term 2011 for the German House and Department was the film festival Sewaneenale. Because of the high interest for German film during the Advent Term, I organized this one-week event simultaneously to the Berlinale, held in February. Accompanied by an informative brochure and glamorous gala events, classics like Lang's Metropolis to contemporary Fatih Akin's Soul Kitchen drew quite an amount of cinematic aficionados. Consequently, the red-carpet we unwound the opening night, stretched from past to present and hopefully into the future by continuing this newly-found tradition. Good luck for 2012 and "Action!"

A next stop on the way through spring was the Outreach Trip to the Mississippi Delta. The Delta is economically one of the poorest regions in the United States, and culturally one of the richest. Driving down to the Delta, to this unbelievably flat and unbelievably fertile patch between the Mississippi and the Yazoo River, is like driving down America's literary and musical memory lane. Elvis' front porch. Faulkner's living room. And finally, B.B. King's museum, our destination in Indianola, Mississippi. Here, we - a group of about 15 enthusiastic Sewanee students and their leader on Spring Break - were ready to be tutors during the museum's The Art of Living Smart, a vacation program for children from the Delta, ages 6 to 15. Swamped with the happiness and joy of our little friends and through meetings with many Mississippians, we experienced another rich side of the Mississippi Delta: hospitality and open hearts. And...good food! Ain't nothing you can't fry, precious.

To visit the Delta felt a bit like visiting the United States through its back door. A back door, around which the past problems of segregation still linger, but also a back door with enormously welcoming people and intriguing stories waiting behind its sagging hinges and torn door knobs. A region as a paradox, that makes you want to reiterate Martin Luther King's wish for little black children and white children playing together as brother and sister. A region where doors don't seem to matter because they are always open.

This trip to the Deep South went hand in hand with the courses I was taking in Sewanee this term, and thus was enriching on many levels. In American Literature of the South, for example, we read William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses, and many texts revolving around the Delta and various other places of the South, its plantations, poor farmers and rich cotton kings. And as birthplace of the Blues and crucial in the development of a genuinely American folk music, talking about the social and cultural structures of the South made up a huge part of our discussion in the American Popular Music class From Ragtime to Radiohead.

Music seems to be everywhere in the South. This statement has become even more evident after my second semester. In the Delta, we visited juke joints like Po' Monkeys, a little shack bumping with funky music in the middle of a field (It took us two days to find it!); blues bars like Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero (We missed the owner just by one day!); and an Afro-American church service with a powerful gospel choir and an ecstatic preacher (who was speaking in tongues, and therefore, I really think, the devil won't dare squatting in our souls again).

But not only listening to music and talking about it was part of my Sewanee experience, also making music was prevalent throughout my stay. I took fiddle lessons again in order to get further acquainted with traditional American fiddling, and the tunes going with it. The tunes sound very nice - if one can keep a steady bow, I admit. The voice lessons were another musical highlight. And at the end of the second term, a Broadway recital and a jazz band concert were waiting. This meant not only solo, but also duet rehearsals plus a little choreography. Indeed, I was dancing "Cheek to Cheek."

The theater class The Physical Actor: Form Neutrality to Clown also came right up my alley. Our group met once a week to experience mainly physical acting with wearing eccentric masks to wearing the littlest mask of all: the red nose. How better celebrating Tennessee Williams' 100th anniversary than taking an acting class in Sewanee's Tennessee Williams Center? By the way, through the literary royalties Williams donated posthumously to the university funds, he contributed to the center's construction.

Performance was also a central aspect of the Contemporary Art class. On our way through the art history of the last about 100 years, we followed the shift away from traditional figure-ground-relationships to a post-modern diversity of styles in the second part of the 20th century, among them performance art, video installations and the digital in film. This is where the second part of Film History: From Mid-Century to Present, a class I was auditing, tied in well with.

Little by little, the path of time led from spring into early summer. And before I embarked on my way back home to Germany, I had the chance to explore a few more back roads with some of the international and American students still on campus after Commencement Weekend. Together we hiked parts of the scenic perimeter trail circumscribing the Cumberland Plateau, on which Sewanee's campus is situated - voted most beautiful campus in the United States (True indeed!) - or visited two of the National Military Parks dealing with the still very present history of the Civil War.

With all the cultural impressions, riveting classes taught by enthusiastic professors and the wonderful experiences I shared with the members of the German House and the whole Sewanee community, this exchange year was a culturally and academically enriching, adventurous and joyful time. I would like to truly thank the VDAC and The University of the South for the opportunity, Frau Krause for her great advice and care, Professor Davidheiser and Professor Zachau and everybody at Sewanee who made this year as marvellous and unforgettable as it was.

As so many examples from history and literature have proven, some roads that start back then are invaluable for the future. Which direction they finally lead you? Who knows.

Florian (Amerikanistik/Uni Bamberg) studieret 2010/11 an der University of the South in Sewanee, TN