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In Focus

Oklahoma's Anita May

By Melanie Abrams | HUMANITIES, May/June 2005 | Volume 26, Number 3

When Anita May became director of the Oklahoma Humanities Council in 1976, her goal was to bring Oklahomans as many humanities programs as there were Friday night football games. "People didn't even know what the humanities were," says May. "One of our first ideas was a summer humanist program where scholars could spend a summer working with a community to develop their own programs, but people protested because they thought humanist meant atheist."

The Oklahoma council was founded in 1971, the first year state-based humanities councils were formed. "We wanted to bring the humanities into the everyday lives of people, not keep them locked in a classroom or a museum. But this was a bizarre notion," May says. "The universities didn't think local people would be interested, the museums thought their job was to build collections, and the libraries had their hands full with their books." So in the early days the council provided programming.

"We wanted to bring the humanities to places like Altus and Muskogee, so our first program was a traveling exhibit on Will Rogers," May says. "We put the exhibit in a truck and this new PhD student drove it around to supermarkets, libraries, museums. A few times he broke down by the side of the road, and people insisted on seeing the exhibit before they would help him."

Traveling exhibitions proved a great way to reach the public, and, in 1985, May encouraged museums to set up their own touring exhibitions. Currently, there are eighteen exhibitions traveling throughout the state. "We have exhibits on Native American, European, black, Asian, and Hispanic settlers." Each of the exhibitions is mounted in freestanding wood and glass frames, an important detail because most towns don't have wall space to house the exhibits. "And we don't need climate control or insurance since we use reproductions. We can go anywhere--libraries, schools, banks," May says. "People really get involved. We've even had bank employees bring in their own artifacts to complement the exhibits."

Another program that May is particularly proud of is the Clemente Course in Oklahoma: "I was listening to the radio one day and heard Earl Shorris discussing his work in New York." Shorris is the founder of the Clemente Course, a college-level course in the humanities for people living in poverty. "He was talking about how the humanities are the foundation of a democratic society, how learning about the humanities helps you understand where you fit into the community." May invited Shorris to Oklahoma, where he saw a need in the American Indian communities. With May's help and a grant from the Oklahoma council, Shorris created the Native American Clemente Course, a two-semester course that studies the histories, languages, and literatures of the tribes. So far the Kiowa, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Wichita have participated. "They are losing their culture and language, and these courses help them reconnect," May says.

With Oklahoma's centennial approaching in 2007, May has been busy with "OK Reads OK," a program encouraging Oklahomans to read about their heritage. For the last three years, the council has chosen a "literary six-pack," three works of fiction and three of nonfiction about the Sooner State, and asked Oklahomans to vote online for their favorite. The winning book is then read and discussed by scholars and the author in libraries across the state. "This year we had six thousand votes," May says. "And next year I'm hoping for sixty thousand."

But May will have to watch those polls from a distance. Come next January, she is retiring after thirty years with the council. May has a PhD in modern European history from the University of Pittsburgh, and she hopes to return to doing research in French history.

Thirty years later, how do humanities programs rate with football games in Oklahoma? "I never counted," May says. "But getting to as many counties and towns as we do with five hundred or so events and grants each year is figuratively comparable."

Melanie Abrams is a writer in Washington, D.C.