[By: Jerry W. Ward Jr.]
From a pre-future vantage, one can discover the joy of refusing. Refusing or resisting is neither an innate virtue nor a vice, despite the fact that one must ultimately account for the moral properties of one’s actions . Refusing is an opportunity to live with the alternatives that might better identify one’s historicity. Consider the outcomes of refusing to read such commercially promoted books as:
Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
Unigwe, Chika. On Black Sisters Street. New York: Random House, 2009.
Parker, Nate, ed. The Birth of a Nation: Nat Turner and the Making of a Movement. New York: Atria, 2016.
One profits from viewing displacement at some distance. For example, Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, a place that is not free to forget its association with segregation and slavery; Unigwe was born in Nigeria and now lives in Belgium, a place condemned to remember the obscene crimes it committed in Africa; Parker, who was born in Norfolk, Virginia, complies an official movie tie-in for his cinematic effort to manufacture ironies by partial deconstruction of D. W. Griffin’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, an iconic visual monument to American racism, and of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, a literary tribute to the making of “whiteness.” Refusing to engage the two novels and the film allows one to “buy” time for evaluation at some distance from the dubious race to be au courant. Chosen ignorance is not bliss but a Trump-like signal of independence. It marks one’s being partially immune to the gestures of the herd or the culture-consuming mob.
There is fine sport in sampling the first and the closing sentences of the novels:
Gyasi: “The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound (3)….Marjorie splashed him suddenly, laughing loudly before swimming away, toward the shore” (300). [the conditions of historical accidents]
Parker’s book invites sampling longer passages.
“How many of you know who Nat Turner is?” I wasn’t the only one staring blankly at my African-American Studies professor. I’d overheard the name once or twice in my childhood, but without context –the where, the why, and the what of his story —his name had no resonance. (3)
The story of Nat Turner, and stories of the struggles and triumphs of other enslaved African people, are only one small portion of the total Pan-African experience. But as they relate to the current state of affairs —these stories are powerfully salient tools in community healing and restoration. Nat Turner knew that Black lives mattered in the 1800s. The story of his dedication and sacrifice for his people can empower us to make that a reality today. (176) [the conditions of memory]
If the three works have validity in one’s determining the contested nature of “Truth,” there are advantages in the joy of refusing to read them before 2026 when enslavement has a new face.
[By Shelia Bonner]
Florence Onyebuchi “Buchi” Emecheta was born July 21, 1944 in Lagos, Nigeria, to Igbo parents, Jeremy and Alice Nwabudinke. Her childhood was spent in Ibusa, the birthplace of her parents. In the 1950s she met her future husband Sylvester Onwordi. Between 1960 through 1966, the young couple bore five kids, two boys and three girls. Emecheta and her husband raised their family in London.
Their rocky marriage served to be the topic of several of Emecheta’s novels. Her 1974 Second Class Citizen details the conflicts of that marriage through the protagonist Adah. Other works by the Nigerian writer are In the Ditch (1972), The Bride Price (1976), The Slave Girl (1977), The Joys of Motherhood (1979), and Destination Biafra (1982). Emecheta also wrote several children’s books, most notably Nowhere to Play (1980). She is also known for A Kind of Marriage, a play aired by the BBC in 1976.
The esteemed writer was often invited to teach in American institutions of higher education. These invitations led her to Pennsylvania State, Rutgers, UCLA, and Yale. She served as a resident fellow of English at the University of Calabar in Nigeria. Several awards and honors were bestowed on Emecheta during her lifetime. She won the New Statesman Jock Campbell Award in 1978. In 1983, Granta named her “Best of the Young British Novelists”. Buchi Emecheta, in 2005, received the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE). The OBE, established by King George IV in 1917, is a prestigious honor bestowed to those whose works are great contributions to charitable and welfare organizations, public services, as well as to those who have made remarkable contributions to the arts and sciences.
Buchi Emecheta, who often identified as a womanist, made notable contributions to the literary and academic world before suffering from health complications from a 2010 stroke. She died January 25, 2017, in London at the age of 72. As scholars Hamid Farahmandian and Ehsaninia Shima once wrote: “Buchi Emecheta as one of the most debatable writers from Nigeria, did the best endeavors to demonstrate the culture and traditions of the Nigeria in the form of a tragedy novel to the world, she has been very ambitious and hopeful to see great changes in the attitudes of the African people about woman and her role in the family”(195). She serves to be the inspiration for younger writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Later this year, a memorial event will be held for Buchi Emecheta in London to celebrate her life and work.
Busby, Margaret. “Buchi Emecheta Obituary”. The Guardian, 3 February 2017,
Farahmandian, Hamid and Ehsaninia Shima. “Dynamics of Tradition and Modernity in Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature, v. 1, n. 4, p. 191-196, sep. 2012.
Continuing our celebration of “hidden figures” in Kansas, Dr. Maryemma Graham sat down with Mrs. Ann B. Garvin to discuss her lifelong commitment to education and advocacy for women, children and youth.
[By Dr. Maryemma Graham]
Mrs. Ann B. Garvin lives in the home her late husband built for her, in a somewhat secluded area of southwest Topeka. It’s hard to catch up with her, for although retired, she remains an active traveler, deeply involved in her church and community. She thinks a lot about her career as unintentional; she believed she was just doing what was “automatic.” When she attended a book talk on Hidden Figures at the Topeka Public Library earlier this year, she realized she had a story to tell and shared it with the audience that day. I wanted to know more, and she granted me an interviewed on March 17.
In 1958, Mrs. Ann B. Garvin became the first African American teacher at Topeka High School, in the very city that put Kansas on the national map in the battle over school desegregation just a few years earlier. Debates over the momentous Brown decision had hardly died down when Garvin joined the faculty at the city’s only high school. Topeka had made very little progress toward integration, not only in the schools but also in public facilities generally. Garvin was not a native Kansan, but had moved to Topeka as a newlywed to join her husband, who had already begun his career as a psychiatric social worker. In the early 1950s, Mr. Garvin had taken the bold step of introducing himself to Dr. Carl Meninger, who invited him to Topeka move. Garvin and her husband had met as students at Kentucky State College, an HBCU, and mapped out their future lives as professionals.
Growing up in Kentucky during the era of segregation, Mrs. Garvin does not represent a deficit model in her personal or educational background. Her grandparents and parents, uncles and aunts had all been educated at HBCUs. Her grandfather had taught at Hampton and she says there was no question that she would not only go to college, but also get an advanced degree. While the laws may have prevented her admission into the graduate school at the University of Kentucky, she took courses there and completed her Master’s Degree at Fisk before moving to Topeka.
For several years, Garvin remained the only African American teacher at Topeka High. During her nineteen years in the school system, followed by employment with Shawnee County as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for Abused and Neglected Children (CASA) Garvin taught, mentored, and advocated for children and youth. The former chair of Topeka Day Care, she held key leadership roles in women’s organizations, some at the national level, serving as President of Women in Community Service, and some at the state level, where she is a former President of Kansas State Women’s Political Caucus.
Although she joined the school system with an advanced degree, she was not allowed to teach the advanced classes, but Mrs. Garvin refused the box she was put in. Her students excelled because of her unique methods of instruction and her belief that education would and could make their lives better. In fact, when students in her “regular” classes began talking to their peers in the “advanced” classes, they were surprised to discover they were indeed receiving advanced instruction. To her, math provided invaluable skills. No student would leave her class without them. She advised her students to write to her with their concerns, she communicated directly with their parents, and she relied upon both individual and group instruction in her teaching. She integrated culture and history into the learning process, students didn’t see what they were learning as foreign. Nor did they find it especially difficult, despite Garvin’s reputation as a demanding teacher. She routinely began teaching math with the goal of understanding some basics: how to do a budget, buy a car, and read a road map. These assignments would last over a period of time as students used true facts for their calculations. She taught word problems by adapting from what she had learned in English: breaking down the whole into separate parts, similar to the way one diagrams a sentence.
Ann Garvin clearly had her own book of rules. She always believed that as an educator, she was “teaching for mastery and teaching for life,” not teaching for the test. As to the idea and—a current perception—that African American youth have difficulty with abstract thinking and are less likely to excel in math, she says, “That’s bull!”
So how did Mrs. Garvin operate her classroom? She was quite explicit in our March interview.
You have to teach mathematics as a mental and practical process . . . and incentivize the classroom by making it competitive without affecting student’s grades.
I would sometimes give the test that were not intended to produce answers, but their understanding of how to find the answer. I also gave them drills to provide more mental practice, and since they could not use pencils, they became quite good. My students were eager to complete the week’s assignments early, so that we could do math games on Friday. They brought in their own games and were learning from each other. When I taught algebra or geometry and we began working on proofs, I made that competitive by reducing the number of steps required to get to the answer. We’d start at 10 steps and the student who got to the lowest number first would write on the board.
If learning was more important than getting the right answer, Garvin is equally clear on the impact of school integration.
I hate to say it, but white teachers and black teachers teach from their experience, but these experiences are different. So when a white teacher doesn’t know the culture, is teaching a majority class of black students, and the student is having difficulty, it leads to the assumption that the black student cannot learn.
[After school integration] white teachers didn’t have the necessary knowledge, and the black students they were teaching didn’t have the experience. The issue is not ignorance, it’s lack of knowledge. My education was entirely segregated until I reached graduate school, and my teachers never saw a separation between what we were learning and what our experiences had been. Black History was never relegated to a single week.
Garvin also suggested that today’s parents are intimidated by schools and public institutions generally, “because of what our history has been.” The lack of trust disrupts what should be a partnership. The result is that “no one’s got your back,” and Mrs. Garvin had to do that even more when she worked at CASA. “Our last hope may be the church since this is one place where people feel connected to one another. But I truly believe that those who know need to pass on and support those who don’t know.” The rightness of her belief has been proven time and time again as successful students come back to thank her, and as she watches the young women and mothers with whom she worked become outspoken public advocates of change.
Ann B. Garvin is one of Kansas’s many hidden figures.
[By Dr. Giselle L. Anatol]
Around the year 2000, the University of Kansas hosted the African Studies Association International Conference, and I was delighted to be able to chat for a few moments with Derek Walcott, Nobel Laureate, MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellow, Guinness Poetry Award winner, Royal Society of Literature Awardee, Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, etc., etc. etc. Walcott was a keynote speaker at the conference that year, and regaled me with stories about the “real” Achille (pronounced “Ah-SHEEL,” he was quick to tell me) and Hector, fishermen he knew from St. Lucia and who provided some of the inspiration for his epic poem, Omeros—a work which spins its reader in a complex torrent of historical, artistic, and religious allusions, much in the way that the character Hector is spun about by the all-powerful sea. (Omeros was selected by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Editors’ Choice Best Books of 1990, and Michael Heyward of The Washington Post Book World applauded the publication as “Strenuous and thrilling… [with] a sense of unbridled imaginative scope, that feeling of amplitude and sensuous inclusion which we find in Homer—and a few other writers, Lucretius, for instance, or Shakespeare or Whitman—and which Walcott can summon as much as any poet now living.”) I had taught this impressive work for the first time the year before, and told Walcott about how committed I was to continue bringing it to the mindscapes of my KU students. They found it incredibly challenging, but also incredibly eye-opening.
I just received an email from one of those students this weekend. She wrote:
“Dear Professor Anatol,
I was a student in your Freshman Honors English class at KU in 1999. I was sad to see that Derek Walcott died this week and I was reminded of Omeros and your interesting Caribbean literature course. I still have the book on my shelf. Thank you for a great class that has stayed with me after many years.”
What more could any teacher ask for?
Derek Walcott was a truly marvelous wordsmith, long praised for his vibrant portrayal of Caribbean culture. Awarding him the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy remarked upon his “poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural achievement.” Critic Stephen Breslow commented: “In the manner of Joyce and Yeats, Walcott has merged a profound, rhapsodic reverie upon his [birthplace of St. Lucia]—its people, its landscape, and its history—with the … classical tradition of Western civilization.” The poet, playwright, and essayist commonly incorporated the European canonical texts of his formal (British colonial) childhood education while discussing the legacies of slavery, imperialism, and colonization in the Caribbean—legacies including cultural synthesis and creolization.
The adoption of African and European influences sometimes caused controversy, especially amongst pan-Africanists and Caribbean nationalists. Walcott did not engage in a wholesale rejection of the colonizer’s culture; neither did he fully embrace Africa as homeland. Rather, his writing insistently reflected his individual, familial, mixed-race background and a larger regional history. “A Far Cry From Africa,” one of his most commonly anthologized poems, manifests the tension as follows:
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Derek Walcott composed over 15 books of poetry, including Another Life (1973); Sea Grapes (1976); Midsummer (1984); The Arkansas Testament (1987); and The Bounty (1997). He was well versed in the dramatic arts, as one might expect of a man whose mother was a schoolteacher and staged Shakespeare productions for the local community during his youth. He founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1959 and served as its director until 1976 (and is thus often claimed as an honorary Trinidadian). Of his 30+ plays, the best-known include The Sea at Dauphin (1954); Ti-Jean and His Brothers (1958); the Obie Award-winning Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967); and The Odyssey: A Stage Version (1993). And his tremendous eye
for beauty and drama in the natural landscape can also be witnessed in his visual art. For images of his oils and watercolors, click here.
Derek Walcott. He will be sorely missed.
Dr. Giselle Anatol is a professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of English at the University of Kansas. Her areas of specialization include contemporary Caribbean women’s literature, African American literature, and children’s literature.
[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]
Either indirectly or directly, all of you are responsible for creating the political climate that encouraged American citizens, with the help of the Electoral College, to elect President Trump. In the spirit of trying to perpetuate a liberal democracy , citizens voted. A number of feel cheated. We have been cheated as the MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN mantra resounds throughout the United States. In this Republic, which can be little more than a metaphor for democracy, we are dismayed that the number of popular votes for a candidate counts for naught. We shall continue to vote, especially in local and state elections. Mark my words. Some of you may wish to apply for one of the jobs your President has vowed to bring back to America. The grapes of wrath shall bloom. Some of you shall lose your seats.
Those of you survive ought to attend to the work of restoring a modicum of confidence in the political process. American citizens are not ancient Romans in need of a circus. “The virtues of our system of federated governments, ” Carl L. Becker wrote in Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life (1945), are indeed very great” (93). Noble words. Becker was aware, however, that “the most striking defect of our system of government is that it divides political power and thereby conceals political responsibility. The business of governing is entrusted to the President and the Congress, but it too often happens that no body of elected representatives can be held responsible or called to account for the formulation of policies or the enactment of measures to carry them through” (95). The defects you have been complicit in sustaining since 2000 have encouraged the slipping of democracy into fascism. In his first address to Congress, Trump made it clear, even unto the deaf, the dumb, and the blind, that such slipping is at the core of his political ideology. Weight his propositions. Do not pretend that you have not been warned.
The minority of Congresspersons who refuse to dirty their minds and hands with bad faith can profit from reading Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century (2011) by Dorothy Roberts. She has made a principled, comprehensive analysis of how President Trump’s dedicated racialization of our nation is a choice that, with your help, can destroy democracy. In her conclusion, Roberts provides a logical warning:
Will Americans continue to believe the myth that human beings are naturally divided into races and look to genomic science and technology to deal with persistent social inequities? Or will they affirm our shared humanity by working to end the social injustices preserved by the political system of race? This is the most pivotal question facing this nation in the twenty-first century because the answer will determine the basic nature of the relationship between citizens and the government and with each other. One path is already leading to aggressive state surveillance, extreme human deprivation, and unspeakable brutality against whole populations on the basis of race. By obscuring this coercive control over poor communities of color, the new racial biopolitics permits the growth of a state authoritarianism and a corporatized definition of citizenship that endangers the democratic freedoms of all Americans. We must chose the other path of common humanity and social change if we are to have any hope for a more free and just nation.” (312)
Heed her warning. Either weed the garden or allow it to grow into a negative Eden of implacable dread.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
March 4, 2017.