Wednesday, April 27, 2016

African American Poetry and Contemporary Book History

The production of so many volumes of poetry by African American poets between 2000 and 2016 makes it difficult to keep track. We’re talking dozens and dozens of poets, hundreds of books, and thousands of poems. And that’s just to cite the poems that appear in book form. The poetry data greatly extends if we take stock of poems in magazines, poems in anthologies, poems performed at local spoken word scenes, and poems on YouTube.

Despite the prevalence of online materials in our digital age, physical books still matter. Further, the contemporary histories of black poetry as presented through book-length volumes contribute to our overall understanding of African American literary art. Documenting and pinpointing the nature of what has been produced will assist us in recognizing the ways that works by poets converge and depart from compositions by novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and other creative writers.

Taken together, Elizabeth Alexander, Allison Joseph, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Tyehimba Jess, Evie Shockley, Kevin Young, and many, many other poets have published a tremendous body of works over the last decade or so. Yet, I worry about whether their books will fade from our collective memories, or even enter into our consciousness. Without more concerted efforts to account for what poets have been up to, we will overlook crucial developments and important trends.

Each year, we do a good job of acknowledging select poets. In particular, we honor and celebrate award-winning poets. Notably, the numbers of such poets have increased in the 21st century. But, don’t we need more discussions concerning what’s happening with black poetry in general? One benefit of thinking about African American poetry in the context of the field of Book History is that we might be inclined to study how individual publications or groups of publications relate to a larger body of related texts along a trajectory of time.

So far, much of Book History has concentrated on works from a more distant past. However, who says that we can’t collect, organize, analyze, and describe works from a more recent past, like all the exciting developments that have taken place in poetry book publishing over the last 16 years? A clearer, even general sense of the contemporary histories of African American poetry would assist us in understanding the extents to which individual poets and works contribute to the whole.

Every few years, I’ve heard poets announce that “we’re experiencing a Renaissance” in black poetry. The remark, which I’ve heard expressed by various poets nearly every year for more than a decade now, has not necessarily convinced me of a monumental rebirth. Instead, I’ve taken note that poets at certain stages of their careers, typically those who are publishing their first books or involved with a distinct publishing project, deploy the rhetoric of a Renaissance to reflect their good feelings about what they are currently witnessing or participating in respect to poetry.

I hope that increasing numbers of poets, literary scholars, and cultural workers take up the tasks of documenting all that is occurring these days with African American poetry. Some of that documentation would involve accounting for the many poetry volumes published over the years. With a fuller account of the record of the activities, we’d be in a better position to assess the value of African American poetic contributions.

Howard Rambsy II teaches at Southern Illinois University; he blogs at the Cultural Front.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Rereading Poems from Prison

When Etheridge Knight autographed my copy of Poems from Prison (1968; 1st edition, fifth printing, March 1971), he wrote "Keep On! We gonna win." and signed his name "Imamu Etheridge Knight." By designating himself a spiritual leader , he positioned himself to remind me that some poets believe what they do pertains to mind, body, and spirit. His urging me to "keep on" could be related to many activities, especially to African and American imperatives. In the 1970s, those imperatives had something to do with cultural nationalism and teaching. His prediction that we will win something laid heavy weight on me and "all the other caged black cats everywhere" to whom he dedicated his book. And some caged tawny, white, and impractical cats were expected to share the weight. In the 1970s, a terrible beauty of optimism was frequently reborn.

It was (and still is) a funky deal when I first read stanza two of Knight's poem "On Universalism" ---

No universal laws
Of human misery
Create a common cause
Or common history
That ease black people's pains
Nor break black people's chains (25).

or the final, African American haiku in a set of nine

Making jazz swing in
Seventeen syllable AIN'T
No square poet's job. (19)

and then discovered in the poem "It Was a Funky Deal" that what Knight had in mind was Malcolm's

You rocked too many boats, man.
Pulled too many coats, man.
Saw through the jive.
You reached the wild guys
Like me. You and Bird. (And that
Lil LeRoi cat.)

It was a funky deal. (28)

The poems trigger sensations that depend on locating the poet's language in realms of one's lived experiences as well as one's acquired knowledge of social and cultural operations. In 2016, Knight's Poems from Prison is funky fresh in recalling the extreme pain of rebirth.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. 
 April 1, 2016

Friday, April 22, 2016

ICYMI: The Last Week in Black Writing and Culture (4/16-4/22)

Harriet Tubman is to replace Andrew Jackson on the 20 dollar bill. The abolitionist will be the first African American to appear on paper currency.

Project HBW went to College Language Association's annual convention. This year's convention was held in Houston, TX at the Hyatt Regency, and was hosted by Texas Southern University. See our recap here.

What is Afrofuturism? The Root's new 4-part web series explores this movement.

On Monday, Peter Balakian was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his new collection of poetry, Ozone Journal.

Sherman Alexie discussed his new book, Thunder Boy Jr., which he hopes will help correct the problem of the lack of brown-skinned kids in children's literature. Alexie discussed the complications of such a task. "I thought this would be easy," he said, "but it wasn’t at all. I tried 30 or 40 different ideas."

Project HBW emphasizes academic excellence and social responsibility among its staff members. This past month was especially excellent in both of these areas! Staff member Kierstin McMichael was awarded the Alexis F. Dillard Student Involvement Award, Kris Coffey was awarded the Margaret Walker Memorial Prize in Creative Writing, Crystal Bradshaw was awarded the Brousseau Creativity Award for Writing, Angela Murphy was awarded the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, and Maryemma Graham was awarded the CLA Lifetime Achievement Award. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Click here to read more about HBW's accomplishments.

On April 21, the world mourned the untimely loss of Prince Rogers Nelson who passed away at the age of 57.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Conference Report: College Language Association, 2016

This year's 76th College Language Association convention was held in Houston, TX at the Hyatt Regency, April 6-9. Hosted by Texas Southern University, the University of Houston and Prairie View, the theme for this year, "Dialogues between Africa and African Diaspora in Languages, Literatures, and Films" brought hundreds to present papers and engage in discussions. CLA was founded in 1937 to provide faculty from HBCU's with a professional outlet since they were excluded from MLA and other professional organizations. CLA also affords HBW the opportunity to convene its annual board meeting.

Board members Doretha Williams (George Washington University),
Howard Rambsy (Southern Illinois University), Amy Earhart (Texas A&M University),
Maryemma Graham (University of Kansas), and Daryl Dance (University of Richmond)

Chair Daryl Dance, Orrieann Florious (Howard University),
and Portia Owusu (University of London)

HBW hosted two New scholars panels this year, including “Reading and Writing the African/Diaspora: Africa and the Caribbean” featuring Portia Owusu and Orrieann Florious, and “What’s Race Got to Do with It? – Then and Now” with Matthew Broussard, Nathan Moore, and Jessica Wicks. The former panel addressed themes of silence in literary works, and the latter looked at representations of race in various genres such as comic books, children's books, and film.

Jessica Wicks (Howard University), Matthew Broussard (University of Kansas),
 and Nathan Moore (SUNY Buffalo)

More than eighty concurrent panels and events over the three days indicate the vibrancy in the study of diaspora literatures and cultural expression. Highlights of the conference included a panel on "Margaret Walker’s Jubilee Revisited," "Revolutionary Love: Black Women Resistance Writers," "#FrederickDouglass: Using Technology to Advance African American Studies," "Blackening the Books of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton in Africanist Tongues," "The Physics of Blackness: Questioning 'Blackness' Here and Now," and "Zora Neale Hurston, The Wizard of Oz, and Conjuring Cultural Practices." The conference screened a number of films, including Furious Flower III: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, and culminated on Saturday, April 9th with BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez.

John Edgar Tidwell (University of Kansas), Matthew Broussard,
and Portia Owusu

HBW tabled throughout the day, recruiting for KU's annual Sneak Peek, HBW's NEH funded Black Book Interactive Project, and spreading the word about our mission and projects.

Author Daniel Black (Clark Atlanta University)

The reception this year was held at TSU's University Museum. Daniel Black, author of six novels, read from The Coming, which traces a family's journey through the middle passage and the strength and resolve of the African spirit that arises after being stripped of everything.

At the annual banquet on Friday night, Maryemma Graham was awarded the CLA Lifetime Achievement Award. KU doctoral student and HBW staff member Kris Coffey was awarded the Margaret Walker Creative Writing Award for fiction.

Maryemma Graham and John Edgar Tidwell

Despite the perception of a field in decline, as the humanities struggles to reinvent itself, CLA is in growth mode. Its conferences are consistently diverse, with robust debate and social engagement with a purpose. Three sessions gave attention to the digital humanities, for example, which CLA is actively promoting among its member institutions. If one wants to know what is African American and Diaspora Literature, as the oldest organization in the field, CLA is definitely the place to go. Next stop - the University of Missouri, Columbia—MIZZOU in 2017.

Friday, April 15, 2016

ICYMI: The Last 2 Weeks in Black Writing and Culture (3/26-4/15)

The works of female artists are being featured in a resurgence of "women's only" or "group show" exhibitions across the country. Though the practice fell out of favor after the 1970's and 1980's, some curators are calling this reviving trend a "curatorial corrective," while female artists bristle at the thought of a "one and done" mentality that will not shift the overall landscape of the art world.

Angela Davis has spoken out about the candidates currently vying for the presidency, and she is "not impressed". In an interview with Democracy Now!, Davis discussed the need for a "new party" with a focus on labor, race, women, and other social issues she has advocated for throughout her career. She leveled critiques at each of the three frontrunners: from Donald Trump's fascism and white supremacist support, to Hillary's universalism as a  means to ignore race, to Bernie Sanders' "economic reductionism," Davis left nothing to question as to why she is remaining independent of offering endorsements to such a weak field for the nation's top executive office.

The Poetry Foundation recently offered a "Langston Hughes 101" discussion to introduce people to the work of a key figure in African American literary history. Several of his poems are summarized, and links to his own writings about poetry are also included. He is portrayed as a man of the community, and of the world. In the words of his poem "The Quick and the Dead" - "Better to be human / Than God - and lonely."

Black Panther #1, the new comic book series from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze was released this week, and there are at least four reasons everyone (even people new to comic books) should check it out. The series promises a new storyline for T'Challa that pairs Coates' brilliant writing to a historically significant character in comic book culture.

We were saddened to learn of the passing of Kenneth Wiggins, creator of GeniusMode Inc. He was a visionary for the concept of Blacks in Tech and his absence will be greatly felt in the creative community.

And finally, if you're looking for trailblazers, check out The Root's 2016 Young Futurists who are making changes in the world around them.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

My English Journey

A photo of myself holding Eliza: A Generational Journey
​at the University of Oxford. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Mary Klayder

When I first traveled internationally to Costa Rica in 2014, I told myself to savor the moment. Because my checkbook wouldn’t be ready to handle another big trip for a while.

At least that’s what I had told myself.

But once I got a taste of traveling, I didn’t want to stop.

In January of this year, I found myself in Africa.

And then this March, England.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Women's History Month: Keeping it Real

I for one am grateful for Women's History Month. Alter all, it comes right after Black History Month, when we get to spend a whole month honoring black people.  Then we do the same for women.  This is public education and it matters greatly.

Some believe that the reason Black History Month exists-- Carter G. Woodson notwithstanding- is several important birthdays: George Washington, the nation's first president; Abraham Lincoln, the great Emancipator; Frederick Douglass, who showed us how a slave becomes a man; W.E.B. DuBois, renowned scholar and educator and co- founder of the NAACP, which was also founded during February.  We recognize and remember the passing of the 15th amendment, the appointment of the first U.S. Black senator Hiram Revels, the Greensboro Sit-Ins, and the assassination of a Malcolm X, all in February.  It's the shortest month of the year, but we hope our fellow Americans will benefit as much as if not more than we did.

Women's history month began, like BHM, as an observance primarily in schools and later gained official status. But what is its relationship to one of the oldest holidays, Mother's Day, an official American celebration since 1913, although its origins go back to the Civil War. Most of us believe that motherhood serves as a bond uniting women and families worldwide. However, we must not forget the origins. Mother's Day began as call for unity in a divided nation after the U.S. civil war and expanded into an international day when women would make public their unity in working toward world peace. In my childhood memoirs, Mother's Day belonged to the church, our family and greeting card companies, all of which belie these more radical beginnings.

For WHM, we get to learn much about the contributions of women to the world, contributions about which far too many of us remain ignorant. In the 21st century we must also use this as an opportunity to register our united opposition to violence against women and girls and to human trafficking that makes commodities of our youth, who are bought and sold for sex and other forms of forced labor.

There is another complication as well. By attributing gender and sexual specificity to WHM--assuming that we are---are we falling into a trap? How are we to recognize newly acknowledged identities within the LGBT community?  Is "women" sufficiently inclusive?  Is it time to retire the "women" in WHM?  After all, we retired the "Negro" and replaced it with Black for BHM, even though it, too, is an increasingly unstable Identity.

We leave this month with these questions and reminders to know our real history and to use it as renewed calls to action against human rights violations and for world peace.

Project HBW wishes to thank the new bloggers to our site who shared timely and meaningful posts, some highly personal, some more grounded in scholarly inquiry.

Women's History Month is a time to learn . . .A time to take a stand for or against something that matters in the lives of women everywhere . . . A  time to keep it real.

Keep following us on our blog at, search for us on Facebook and Twitter, and visit our website at  Be proactive and become a blogger.  We want to hear your ideas.

 HBW - Making black writing matter to more people every day.

Maryemma Graham

Monday, April 11, 2016

Strong Readers Reading the Difficult Long Poem

A metronome does not measure the pleasure of reading a long poem. The pleasure exists, outside of time, in a reader's total aesthetic experience of bringing something to the poem and taking away much more than she or he arrived with. Only strong readers survive, and some of them opt to transform knowledge gained into actions. Others hoard their intellectual wealth. In American time-and-capital-driven cultures of reading, one might argue that becoming a strong reader is often a luxury enjoyed mainly by the incarcerated, for they are condemned to live in "abnormal" time. While they may open their readings to the sufferings of history, they do so without the Kabbalistic gestures Harold Bloom ascribes to strong readers in A Map of Misreading (1975). They employ fierce independence and common sense.

Mackey, Nathaniel. Blue Fasa. New York: New Directions, 2015.

In Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993), Mackey provided theoretical foundations for grasping why his poetic practice diverges from the orthodox frames of referentiality described in Stephen Henderson's groundbreaking Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973). Nevertheless, attentive readers of this book can detect that Mackey's practice is not alien in the tension-marked dynamics of modern African American poetry. The relatively uncanonized works of Russell Atkins and the canonized ones of Melvin B. Tolson, for example, are prototypes of what conservative academic critics might judge to be the transgressions of Mackey's poetics. They provide evidence that difference and difficulty are inherently normal in our poetic tradition, normal to the extent printed poetry can replay music.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

National Poetry Month Featured Writer: Mercedes Lucero

Photo credit: Jeffrey Mckee

This Is What it Means To Say “Black Hair”
Originally published in Narrative Northeast

In third grade, I sat at a blue metal table outside on the blacktop. An older boy at the next table over said to me, “Your hair looks greasy.”

I don’t even remember his name, but I remember he was a white kid.

“Is it because your name is Mercedes?” he asked me, “Do you have to grease up the way you grease up a car?”

He said nothing else, simply stood up and walked away. I sat there, a third grade girl, staring at my unpeeled orange, feeling, for the first time, aware of my own hair. Feeling, for the first time, defined by my hair, noticing how it did not make me unique, but somehow different. A bulge of hot tears formed.

Monday, April 4, 2016


Like Black History Month and Women's History Month, Poetry Month sounds the alarm for annual rituals, or daily ones. Thus, April is for

Remembering and forgetting.
Hurting from ancient injuries and healing whenever possible.
Smelling the skunk of blame and drinking palm wine of forgiveness.
Tracking down the terrorists and seeking the saviors.
Repeating rituals to confirm that we are motes of dust and grains of sand in an ever expanding universe of consciousness.

And what has poetry to do with this busyness? A great deal as it circulates without need of invitation in society. Nursery rhymes, adolescent "love" poems, ads that tax intelligence, and epics are all instances of a genre that defies consensual definition. So too are song lyrics and deft words jammed against the air on the spurs of moments. The uncertainty of knowing precisely what we are talking about, other than a process of talking about something, gives poetry a bad reputation among literal-minded readers who question its legitimacy and a trumped-up name among folk who offer hasty praises and subjective prizes. We are inundated with poetry. Even people who say they do not read or listen to poetry are affected by it. A to Z we have poetry. Poetry, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, inhabits mundane crevices of daily life. Even the kind produced by produced by artificial imagination and mechanical intelligence.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Beauty, Brains and the B-word

A widely recognized fact is the discrepancy between the number of men and women in the science fields. Women’s History Month is a good time to highlight this. This is not to suggest that we have been ignoring the problem. STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) have acknowledged this gap and are trying to fix it. However, on the whole, these efforts are still showing limited results.

It is still much too common that during childhood, females especially, are given a societal choice; they can choose beauty, or they can choose brains. The choice guides the way they think and act; it often influences their expectations.

Make it Funky V: Reflections on Kendrick Lamar Recap

On Thursday, March 24th, the department of African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas sponsored Make it Funky V: Reflections on Kendrick Lamar. The program, held at the Lawrence Arts Center, attracted many from the KU and Lawrence community. The purpose of the Make it Funky series is to explore connections between music, black writing and black culture.

The program began with Dr. Tony Bolden, who created Make it Funky in 2010, discussing the concept of "funk." Funk, he says, is that which music conjures within us, it makes us want to move and break the constraints upon our body. What began as "funk," a term borrowed from James Brown, evolved into "krunk" in the early 2000s, and currently "turned up" has replaced “funk” in our current generation of music listeners. Despite the various names, the underlying idea remains the same. Each of these terms occupies a particular time period in which music is being used to contest societal constraints on the body.