In Memoriam: John Lewis

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[ By: Dr. Maryemma Graham]


“We want our freedom; we want it now”

 March of Washington, 1963

John Lewis (1940-2020)

My autographed copy of John Lewis’s memoir, Walking with the Wind, belonged to my mother, who stood in line to get it, she said, “just in case I missed it.”   “To Helen G. Moore, Keep the faith, John Lewis,” it read.  Icon, a national treasure, idol, moral compass – none quite describe the man whose name is imprinted in every memory I have of growing up in Georgia. He knew his calling early.  Intent on being a minister, a career on which he had already embarked, he left his hometown of Troy, Alabama headed for seminary in Nashville.  But the ministry was not his destiny, at least in the traditional sense.  His nation had called him into service, and once his family had given him their blessing, his people would give him their trust.  That was all he ever needed.  We know the popular outline of his story well.  He met Martin Luther King, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, and he became the Congressman from Georgia for life.  The more he was brutalized during his early days as an activist, the more committed he became, a “ferocious fighter,” Cory Booker called him, for social justice.  Lewis was willing to bear the weight of a movement on his shoulders, to become the conscience of our nation, and he refused to stop until the job was done.


What John Lewis stood for and his accomplishments will fill volumes, hardly touched upon in his 1998 memoir.  The well-deserved eulogizing has already begun as we pause to give studied attention to his extraordinary life and legacy.  We are grateful for Lewis’s omniscience, his willingness in his final days to allow others to focus more on him.  John Lewis: Good Trouble,

the documentary by Dawn Lewis, is available now.  Jon Meacham’s biography His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope will hit stores in October.  We can be assured that there is more to come.

Like many, I knew of but had never met John Lewis.  As a native Georgian, however, I could not help but feel inspired by him.  We Georgians live in the shadow of our leaders, fallen and living, and there is no dearth of them.  Fortunately, I did meet John Lewis in 2007 at the University of Kansas, when he came to accept the Dole Institute Leadership Prize.  While the usual superlatives accompanied the introduction to the award, John Lewis’s acceptance speech was more than modest.  He settled into a conversation with the audience that felt like we were sitting around a table for Sunday dinner.  With his generous anecdotes and cautious optimism, he was the most accessible person I had ever met. I brought my autographed copy of his memoir to share when I greeted him afterward.  His first question was, “When are you coming home?  We need you.”  “Soon, I said,” admittedly startled but appreciative of his gentle push.

Credit: Dole Institute of Politics

A second opportunity came when I was passing through Hartsfield airport in 2016, on one of my regular visits to Mom in Augusta.  I had learned that he was doing a book signing for March, the graphic novel trilogy, which would become an award-winning bestseller. This innovative way of sharing the story of the Civil Rights Movement with a new generation was brilliant, I thought, and I wanted to thank him.  He autographed a full set of the books for the Project on the History of Black Writing, and, looking directly at me, added, “So you finally came home, right?” I nodded only, quickly descending into the lengthy crowd, happy not to have to say more.

These two brief encounters gave me all I needed to know about John Lewis.  I’ve never met a man so genuine, so plain-spoken, whose every word had special meaning.  I realized how easily one could feel his aura when you were in his presence.  And yet, Lewis was not an orator: he did not stand on empty speeches; he simply made it clear that he meant business. He was a man who believed in what could and should be done to make a more equal and just America for all people. That was always his goal, and it was the fight of his life.  Since I had waited so long to meet him, I had expected to see a traditional politician.  Instead, I met an extraordinary man of faith, whose sense of calm was contagious. His patience seemed to have grown with age.  No less fierce, he was simply more determined.  He knew that he was a long-distance runner, and the battle was far from over.  He also knew that he had bequeathed his legacy to others, like Stacey Abrams, who accomplished the remarkable feat of running and almost winning the governor’s seat in the 2018 Georgia election.

John Lewis fought, he endured, without bitterness or anger, no wounds that one could see.  He imparted a vision of what America could become, and much of what we have achieved, we owe to him. I believe the truth of the words in his autograph to my mother: John Lewis did indeed keep the faith in that vision for change and the future of America.


More John Lewis:

His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, forthcoming October 2020

John Lewis: Good Trouble, a documentary, 2020

Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, 2017

March, (a trilogy) 2016

Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, 1998


“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

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[By: Frederick Douglass]

Photo: Library Of Congress/Getty Images

This speech was given at Rochester, New York, July 5, 1852

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too Ñ great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory….

…Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.ÑThe rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery Ñ the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse”; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, “It is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, an denounce less; would you persuade more, and rebuke less; your cause would be much more likely to succeed.” But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia which, if committed by a black man (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgment that the slave is a moral, intellectual, and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man!


Open Letter to Chancellor Girod and Provost Bichelmeyer

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Dear Doug and Barb,

The above announcement was recently brought to our attention. Because the solicitation of funds for this purpose misrepresents our current reality, we feel compelled to respond.  We have joined many of our colleagues at KU and the whole of Lawrence in promoting an inclusive and socially just community at KU for the last 20 years.  Together, we have engaged in (a) recruiting and supporting a diverse population of graduate students who have earned degrees at KU; (b) recruiting and supporting diverse faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; (c) bringing in millions of dollars in external funding to help realize that goal; and (d) fighting tooth and nail to get KU Endowment to help raise monies for an existing fund that places a high “value on diversity and education at KU.” Your appeal for the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship Fund is an appalling, wanton display of disrespect for an entire community.  What is the intent here?  Are you aware of the message this sends out to the world? With whom did you discuss taking such a step? Given the list of priorities we have YET to act upon, this appeal for funds, without any accompanying plan of action, is nothing more than “sounding brass or a tinkling symbol.”

Let’s consider, for a moment, two possible implications of such an appeal: First, it is only after an accumulation of the most extreme acts of violence and police brutality that KU can “see” outside of itself, while ignoring the inequities inside.  Second, KU is so opportunistic that it can only act when driven by guilt or greed. Both responses are part of the  problem– made clear by such groups as Invisible Hawks–and not part of the solution. In sum, your action speaks volumes about what KU is at its core–a vessel filled with empty promises and insincere commitments to social justice.

To the University’s credit, KU administrators in the past have created and approved strategic initiatives awaiting implementation. However, these have proven to be little more than symbolic gestures as department hiring plans and committee reports have gone unheeded. Climate surveys, rich with data, especially on what life is like for people of color on KU’s campus, continue to be ignored. This would suggest that we have known for a while what KU can honestly do to show (a) its commitment to change by better preparing all of our students and training all of its faculty; (b) that black lives matter here and elsewhere; and (c) that it supports a broad-based research mission that facilitates innovation, discovery and the dissemination of knowledge aimed at transforming and creating a more socially just world. Why not proceed with all deliberate speed, prioritizing and acting upon what we know, what is essential?

We are embarrassed that no one thought more clearly before jumping on the bandwagon of empty rhetoric. Thoughtful actions can restore the trust and respect, lost from students, staff, faculty and alumni over the last few years, and made worse in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are convinced that we have the human and institutional resources needed to make real change.  Systemic racism is real and constantly expanding. The deaths of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are among the most recently acknowledged examples of police violence that has a long history.  The last decade alone provides staggering statistics. But we live in the era of “wokeness”and social media, where there is an urgent need to sound and look relevant. To be sure George Floyd helps to punctuate the gravity and senselessness of racial violence in new ways, attracting international attention.

Let us not forget that we are less than a month away from the 50th anniversary of the killing of KU student Rick “Tiger” Dowdell by Lawrence police on July 16, 1970. The racial climate then was not unlike it is today.  One outcome of that tragic event was the establishment of KU’s African and African American Studies Department, the only one in the state of Kansas, which is also turning 50 – the celebration of which the university has elected not to support.

We have every right to be outraged as the death count rises.  We are sure of one thing: neither the families of George Floyd and Rick Dowdell nor our diverse KU communities need mere tokenism. Please do not misrepresent our university and disrespect those of us already committed to equity and inclusion. The real work always begins at home. We remain optimistic that we can move beyond gratuitous tokenism and accomplish genuine, systemic change.

Yours, for a more socially just University,

Maryemma Graham                                                                                                            Edgar Tidwell

University Distinguished Professor of English                                                                Professor Emeritus

Founder and Director, Project on the History of Black Writing                                   Department of English









“Pandemic, Interracial Strife, and the Saving Grace of the Humanities”

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[By John Edgar Tidwell]

Reposted from Humanities Kansas’s newsletter

When Langston Hughes poetically posed the question “What happens to a dream deferred?” he unwittingly but profoundly anticipated the world we now inhabit. Our world has all the feel of a roller coaster or some other carnival ride where up seems down and down seems up. After January 20th, the nation was beset with preventative rules: wash our hands, avoid touching our eyes, keep six feet apart, trace our contacts, and wear a mask. The Covid-19 virus was upon us, and desperate matters called us to contend with measures of self-preservation. Yes, Langston proved to be prescient. Amid the pandemic came yet another crisis, one that has seen the nation roil with riots, looting, shooting, and burning. The brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25th became the flame in a Molotov cocktail as the nation recoiled in righteous anger. The death and dying caused by the virus and the police and experienced disproportionately by African-Americans connect these horrible events. And yet, despite race or social station, these events elicited several common responses: Am I not an American? Am I not entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Don’t I deserve a chance to realize the American Dream? Am I not a human being?

Resolutions to these questions abound. Arguably, turning to the humanities practically guarantees the healing balm of consolation and reassurance. In preparing to make this shift, we must accept the potential for the humanities to be transformative. Therein lies the challenge. Humanities demand the impossible in us. They require us to seek, to question, to be unrelenting in our search for the best in ourselves and in others. Barack Obama discovered their meaning when, in another context, he defined “audacity.” In both Dreams From my Father and The Audacity of Hope, the former president described the courage necessary to make a way out of no way. On the campaign trail, he witnessed the pain of struggling people. But more importantly, he was taken with “their determination, their self-reliance, a relentless optimism in the face of hardship” (Audacity 356). This lesson he called “the audacity of hope,” a prelude to self-reflection. If we have the courage to engage in such introspection, then we can see how our lives intersect with others.


Toni Morrison & Black Feminism

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[By Jade Harrison]

Photo credit: James L. McGuire

Late-twentieth century black feminist critiques written about Toni Morrison’s fiction framed her as an invaluable figure within the black feminist tradition, On March 3rd, 2020, in response to a New York Magazine article, “The Best Books for Budding Black Feminists, According to Experts,”, Dr. Sami Schalk tweeted, “To be on a Black feminist reading list alongside baddies like [Roxanne Gay], [Brittany Cooper], & [Janet Mock], as well as black feminist foremothers like Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde & Octavia Butler is incredibly humbling. I’ve read almost every book on this list” (Schalk 2020). Black women literary critics and scholars have focused on how Morrison’s work centers and highlights the complexities of Black women’s lived experiences throughout her novels. Here are three useful critical essays published during the late-twentieth century that have helped frame the importance of Morrison’s work in Black feminist critical thought:

Barbara Smith’s groundbreaking essay Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” (1977) helped push ongoing conversations in Black feminist scholarship forward. It offers a critical analysis of Morrison’s Sula as a lesbian novel because of Sula and Nel’s friendship, but also due to Morrison’s critical perspective towards heterosexual male/female relationships, marriage, and the family unit. Overall, Smith believes Sula poses important feminist questions about black women’s agency and how Black women influence each other’s lives. Smith’s essay was originally featured in Conditions: a feminist magazine of writing by women with a particular emphasis on writing by lesbians in Fall 1977.


Language Matters IV with Toni Morrison at the Bellevilloise Cultural Center, November 5, 2010
Photo by C.B. Claiborne


In her essay, New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism,” (1980) Deborah E. McDowell tries to extend the conversation Smith started three years prior in her analysis of Sula as a lesbian novel. She believes Smith’s definition of lesbianism is imprecise and oversimplified but does agree with Smith’s call for a more innovative critical approach to Black women’s literature. McDowell believes reading Sula exclusively from a lesbian perspective leaves out the novel’s depth and complexity, as well as “its skillful blend of folklore, omens, and dreams” (McDowell). McDowell’s essay was published in the Black American Literature Forum in Winter 1980.

Barbara Christian’sTrajectories of Self-Definition: Placing Contemporary Afro-American Women’s Fiction” (1985) places Morrison’s novels into conversation with the fiction of other women writers like Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, and Paule Marshall. She argues Morrison’s fiction is unique because it interrogates the intersections of sexism, racism, and class privilege in the Western world while reminding readers there is no straightforward solution to escaping oppressive systems of power regardless of race or gender. Christian’s essay was included in Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers’ edited collection, Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition (1985).




Toni Morrison’s novels published throughout the late-twentieth century serve as important contributions to the development of Black feminist ideologies and Black women’s literature. Smith, Christian, and McDowell’s essays place Morrison’s fiction into conversation with the works of other Black women writers, while advancing ongoing conversations in Black feminist scholarship. Mapping and identifying similarities and differences across Black women’s literature allows us to acknowledge how the literary tradition has transformed over time, but also how it mirrors subsequent shifts in Black feminism.

Jade Harrison is a first-year Ph.D. student in African-American literature at the University of Kansas. She’s also the project manager for the Project HBW’s Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP). Harrison’s research interest includes using data to trace shifting representations of African-American women writers across Black literary anthologies.

Poet Jericho Brown Wins 2020 Pulitzer

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Jericho Brown is the winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for The Tradition (Copper Canyon Press).

The Tradition

By Jericho Brown

Beauty abounds in Jericho Brown’s daring new poetry collection, despite and inside of the evil that pollutes the everyday. A National Book Award finalist, The Tradition questions why and how we’ve become accustomed to terror: in the bedroom, the classroom, the workplace, and the movie theater. From mass shootings to rape to the murder of unarmed people by police, Brown interrupts complacency by locating each emergency in the garden of the body, where living things grow and wither—or survive. In the urgency born of real danger, Brown’s work is at its most innovative. His invention of the duplex—a combination of the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues—is an all-out exhibition of formal skill, and his lyrics move through elegy and memory with a breathless cadence. Jericho Brown is a poet of eros: here he wields this power as never before, touching the very heart of our cultural crisis.

— from the publisher


Jericho Brown has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and he is the winner of a Whiting Award.  Brown’s first book, Please (New Issues, 2008), won the American Book Award.  His second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon, 2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.  His third collection is The Tradition (Copper Canyon, 2019). His poems have appeared in Bennington Review, BuzzFeed, Fence, jubilat, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, TIME, and several volumes of The Best American Poetry.  He is an associate professor and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.


Professor Brown was a Virtual Scholar for HBW’s 2015 “Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement” program funded by NEH.  HBW presented “A Conversation with Jericho Brown” as a webinar in fall 2015.

Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor

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On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man was jogging in Satilla Shores neighborhood when two white men, Travis McMichael and his father Gregory McMichael spotted him and decided to pursue him in their pickup truck.  The duo then shot Arbery believing that he was attempting to rob a house that was under construction.  It took the Glynn County Police Department 74 days to arrest the McMichaels. Only after the video of Arbery’s gruesome murder surfaced online resulting in public outcry did the police department arrest the McMichaels.  Arbery’s death is a modern-day lynching.

On March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor, an Emergency medical technician (EMT) was murdered by officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove of the Louisville Police Department. The officers came into her house unannounced with a no-knock warrant.  The policemen were investigating a  drug operation that occurred 10 miles away from Taylor’s house. Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, allegedly fired his firearm first believing that they were under a home invasion.  Walker is currently facing criminal charges of first-degree assault and attempted murder of a police officer.

We have compiled a list of various news stations and institutions who are covering the murder of Arbery and Taylor.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Press Release:


Coverage from news stations :

Breonna Taylor:

Coverage from International news stations:


Breonna Taylor:


Coverage from Universities:


Justice For Breonna