The 2019 Dickens Universe explores a tale of two riots with students from South LA

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to explore the impact and history of the Los Angeles riots of 1992 with her high school students from South LA. One of the highlights at this year’s Dickens Universe will be an exhibit she has brought to campus with a group of students from Los Angeles that will be open to the public during the entire week of the Dickens Universe.

Visitors to the Cowell exhibit will find listening panels juxtaposing the London riots of 1870 and the Watts riots of 1992.

Each summer, the Dickens Project at UC Santa Cruz—the largest multi-campus consortium on Victorian studies in the world—presents the Dickens Universe, a week of intense study and festivities among the redwoods, usually focused on a novel by Charles Dickens.

2019 marks the 39th year of the popular annual gathering, which takes place the week of July 14-20, and the featured book this year is one of Dickens lesser-known works, Barnaby Rudge.  

Set in 18th-century London, the novel tells a powerful story of public violence and private horror. It depicts the 1780 anti-Catholic riots that have been described by historians as the largest, deadliest and most protracted urban uprisings in British history.

John Jordan, director and co-founder of the Dickens Project explained why this particular book was selected as the featured novel this year.

Barnaby Rudge is seldom read in part because it is a historical novel, set in the 18th century, that deals with a relatively obscure event–the Gordon riots of 1780,” said Jordan. “Those riots were a major event of lawlessness, fomented by strong anti-Catholic feeling that culminated in five days of reckless destruction of life and property across London.”

“We felt it was time to revisit this strange, neglected novel to see what it might have to offer to a new generation of readers. It turns out that Rudge has surprising and suggestive parallels with events in our own times, including the rise of nationalism and the violent treatment of foreigners.”

One of the highlights at this year’s Dickens Universe will be a featured exhibit related to the novel that is coming to the campus from Los Angeles along with a contingent of students and their teacher, Jacqueline Barrios. A graduate student in English at UCLA, Barrios is using Dickens’ novel to explore the impact and history of the Los Angeles riots of 1992 with her high school students from South LA at the James A. Foshay Learning Center.

The exhibit is the culmination of extensive study of Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge by the high school seniors in their AP English Literature class taught by Barrios through her “Lit Labs.”  With support from a partnership with the Dickens Project, Barrios brings in experts from a variety of disciplines to teach her students the featured Dickens Universe book of the year—in ways that they can relate to.

Barrios’s students are scholars with USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI), a college pathway program targeted at preparing first-generation students for higher education. NAI partners with the Dickens Project to support the Lit Lab projects, utilizing new teaching techniques to close the gap between their modern urban experience and the historical world of Dickens.

“For this year’s project, I knew they were going to read Barnaby Rudge,” said Barrios. “The energy comes from Dickens telling stories of the city’s urban uprising. I couldn’t really teach that in South LA without addressing the 1992 LA riots and addressing the history of LA urban riots.”

So she had the students take their study of 19th century literature out of the classroom and into the streets to explore the connections between the London riots of 1870 and the Watts riots of 1992. “I cast my students as storytellers of the two uprisings,” said Barrios. “I asked them “how can you be the Dickens of your times?”

The students did research, made sound recordings, interviewed people who lived in that area during the riots, and put together content for an exhibit that will be on display at the Eloise Smith Gallery at Cowell during the entire week of the Dickens Universe.

Titled LA 1992 / London 1780: Sounding Out a Crowd, the exhibition highlights an album they created called Never Say Die: A Sonic Tribute to the LA 1992 Rebellion, a compilation of sound projects inspired by studying the representation of the two urban uprisings—one from the distant past, and the other in their own neighborhood more than 25 years ago. To produce the album, the students collected sounds for a South LA sonic archive to produce an alternative map of the historical event.

Visitors to the Cowell exhibit will find listening panels juxtaposing the two different uprisings, artwork of album covers for songs and poetry the students created, and a mapping installation.

Barrios and five of her students will present a talk about the project plus a small performance at the gallery on Tuesday, July 16, at 5 p.m. during the week of the Dickens Universe. Admission is free and the public is invited to attend.

In fact, all Dickens Universe events on July 16 after 3 p.m. will be open to the public to experience the Dickens Universe. Admission is free to all of these events (with the exception of dinner which will include a fee). For the complete schedule, visit the Dickens Project web site.