Furious Flower 25th Anniversary Celebration: Day One

Posted Posted in Conferences
Jericho Brown, Maryemma Graham, Andrew Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander , Rance Bailey-Graham, Portia Owusu, Ayesha Hardison, John Edgar Tidwell, Rita Dove, DaMaris Hill, Lacey McAfee, Mona Ahmed, and Darryl Lynn Dance.
Photo credits: C.B. Claiborne

Furious Flower Poetry Center has been at the forefront of Black poetry for 25 years. As the nation’s first academic center for Black poetry, Furious Flower was founded on the campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and born out of a 1994 poetry festival titled “Furious Flower: A Revolution in African American Poetry,” organized by scholar Joanne Gabbin. The festival brought thirty presenters to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to discuss Black poetry with scholars, poets, and lovers of literature. The Center gets its name from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “The Second Sermon on the Warpland” in which she writes, “The time cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.” Since its inception, Furious Flower has held numerous conferences, yearly summer camps, workshops, and published an online literary journal “The Fight & The Fiddle” in 2016. On September 28 through September 30 poets, friends and supporters from all over the world gathered to celebrate the work of Furious Flower and Black poetry, and what better place to celebrate both than at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)? To convene and celebrate the past, present, and future of Black poetry at the NMAAHC, surrounded by remnants of Black history and culture with a blend of poets from various generations, shows the progress that has been made to recognize Black history and culture on domestic and international levels.  

Below is a response to Furious Flower’s 25th Anniversary Fundraiser from former and current HBW staff members and affiliates.

Lacey McAfee, Ed.S., Pennsylvania School Psychologist, and former Communications Specialist and Office Manager at the Project on the History of Black Writing 2010-2014:

Rita Dove reading unpublished poetry. Photo Credit: Mona Ahmed

I had the pleasure of being able to attend the Furious Flower anniversary gala after receiving an invitation from Dr. Maryemma Graham, due to working with the Project on the History of Black Writing during my four years at the University of Kansas. I was amazed at seeing the amount of people, which included some of the most talented poets, professors, and authors, all gathered in one place to celebrate Furious Flower and to continue to support and encourage Black poets. Attendees were given the honor of seeing United States Poet Laureates including Rita Dove, Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, and Amanda Gorman. Each of whom shared a poem, which encompassed a piece of their story or emotions they have felt while the room was hushed, taking in their words. At times during the readings, you could hear within the crowd brief agreements, identifying with what the poets were saying. I  listened in awe, amazed to be able to hear such great pieces that had meaning for each poet and its listeners. At times, I truly lost myself in their words. There were also beautiful contributions to those that recently passed, including the great Toni Morrison, and a fellow English professor who was a friend of Joanne Gabbin. The night then turned into a fun move and groove vibe as the Ranky Tanky jazz band played. You could see the excitement of students coming from other universities and states, being able to meet the very same poets and authors that encouraged them to further pursue their interests as the night turned into mingling, networking, and dancing.    

Portia Owusu, Ph.D., Visiting Assistant Professor / ACES Fellow of English in the Department of English at Texas A&M University: Over the course of three days, there were workshops, seminars, and readings that reflected on the past, the present and the future of African-American poetry. On the first day there was a benefit gala held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington D.C. Galas normally have two things in common: beautifully-dressed people and fundraising. The gala for the Furious Flower Center had all these elements, but it was different in that the focus of the night was not simply “give us your money.” On the contrary, the night showed everyone in attendance why the organization is worthy of support, financial or otherwise. The program showcased a diversity of talent in contemporary African-American poetry, some whose work has enjoyed the international platform and others who are lesser-known, but clearly ones to watch out for. Relating to the former, the occasion was delivered by Elizabeth Alexander. Alexander is a poet and a scholar and currently the President of the Andrew Mellon Foundation. To millions of people worldwide, she is also the poet who wrote and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s inauguration in 2008. Alexander’s opening words, apparently unprepared and improvised, awed the crowd in its authority and exaltation. It demonstrated the richness of the African-American vernacular tradition and its power to uplift on different occasions. It was hard to think about how anyone can follow Alexander after her impressive introduction, but a reading by Amanda Gorman, the first-ever U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate, aptly rose to the challenge. Gorman, a student of sociology at Harvard, read samples of her work. Delivered in the style of the spoken word, it was performative, daring and engaged. The maturity of Gorman’s writing and her passionate performance made it clear that she is a vision of the future of African-American poetry.   (more…)

In Memoriam: Ernest J. Gaines

Posted Posted in Obituaries

 

Photo credit: Unknown

The Project on the History of Black Writing mourns the passing of Ernest J. Gaines. Gaines died from cardiac arrest in his Louisiana home on Tuesday. He was 86. Gaines was born the eldest son of sharecroppers and raised on a plantation in Pointe Coupée Parish, Louisiana. The rural South would become a permanent fixture in his writing because it was not only home in the physical sense, but it was the home that nurtured Gaines in Black oral traditions and laid the foundation for his own storytelling to come to life. It was his loyalty to telling tales of Black life in the South that set him apart from his literary contemporaries and cultivated his legacy.  

“I came from a place where people sat around and chewed sugar cane and roasted sweet potatoes and peanuts in the ashes and sat on ditch banks and told tales and sat on porches and went into swamps and went into the fields—that’s where I came from.” (Ernest Gaines, 1985)

(Renovated church on Mr. Gaines’s property in Louisiana; he attended school in this building as a youth.) Photo credit: Jennifer Zdon for The New York Times

Gaines’s award-winning short-stories and novels include: Bloodline: Five Stories (1968), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), In My Father’s House (1978), A Gathering of Old Men (1983), and A Lesson Before Dying (1993).  In 1974, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was adapted into a television movie of the same name and starred Cicely Tyson. The film was broadcast on CBS and won nine Emmy awards. In 1999, A Lesson Before Dying was also adapted for a television film starring Don Cheadle. The film won Emmy awards for Outstanding Made for Television and Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries or a Made for Television Movie.

“Everyone asked me, ‘Who is she based on?’ I’ve never met one Miss Jane Pittman, I’ve met a thousand.” (Ernest Gaines, 2010)

Photo credit: HBW

Remembrances

Like John Donne’s stationary point on a compass, Louisiana held on to Ernest J. Gaines no matter how far away he traveled. That stationary point commanded his imagination until he re-settled, finally, on the soil he called home. Miss Jane Pittman and Grant Wiggins joined a host of other characters who declared that, on 5 November 2019, he could rest in the bosom of his creativity, in the soil that inspired his genius, in the home that now cradles its most famous son. Rest in peace, Dr. Gaines.” –  Dr. Trudier Harris, November. 5, 2019

“Among Southern writers of the 20th century, Ernest Gaines provided rich lessons about craft, integrity, socially responsible uses of imagination, and the paradoxes of morality.  The best tribute is to be located in reading his works and applying the lessons in our daily lives.” – Dr. Jerry W. Ward, Jr.,   November 5, 2019

Photo credit: University of Louisiana-Lafayette

Resources

Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana Lafayette

Obituaries

UL Lafayette’s First Writer-In-Residence, Professor Emeritus Dr. Ernest J. Gaines Passes Away

Ernest Gaines, acclaimed novelist who wrote of black struggles in the South, dies

Novelist Ernest J. Gaines Dies At Age 86

Author Ernest Gaines, left, with author and folklorist Dr. Trudier Harris, the keynote speaker for the Seventh Annual Gaines Center Lecture Series on Oct. 24. 2019. Photo credit: Tiffany Thomas/Advertiser

Ernest J. Gaines, author of ‘Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,’ dies at 86

Ernest J. Gaines, Author of ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,’ Is Dead at 86

Obituary: Ernest J. Gaines, Novelist of the Black South, Dies at 86

Award-Winning Novelist Ernest J. Gaines Dead At 86

Videos

NEA Big Read: Meet Ernest Gaines

Ernest Gaines: 2017 National Book Festival

A Conversation with Ernest J. Gaines

 

Kiese Laymon on the Power of Revision and Description

Posted Posted in Uncategorized

[By: Victoria Garcia Unzueta]

Kiese Laymon and Cody Charles Photo Credit: Victoria Garcia Unzueta

On October 3rd KU welcomed critically-acclaimed author Kiese Laymon to the Lied Center to deliver the 2019 Common Book Lecture. Laymon is a contributor in this year’s common book, Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nationand has authored a number of books including his debut novel Long Divisionan award-winning collection of essays titled How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and most recently Heavy: An American Memoir, winner of the Carnegie Medal for Nonfiction and a New York Times Best Book of 2018.

During his lecture Laymon read a revised version of his original featured essay titled “Outside.” His discussion described the importance of revision, not only in the literary world, but also in our everyday lives. As he stated, “just because something is published doesn’t mean it’s finished.”  

Reading an excerpt from “Outside,” Laymon articulated how we can learn to revise our lives and how we can learn from our mistakes. Recounting his experience during his first year of teaching at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, Laymon described all the struggles and failures he faced, from trying to be his students’ counselor-parent-teacher, to dealing with the problems of institutionalized racism and the broken justice system. One story Laymon shared was from his time serving on the school’s judicial board during a hearing for a white student who had been caught with cocaine in his room. The student had a full sales setup, which included bags, scales and “product.” However, in his appeal the student stated that a “big, dark man forced him to buy the cocaine.” The student’s plea for sympathy lead the board to dismiss the case and he faced no repercussions.   

Doubting the validity of the student’s encounter, Laymon opposed the ruling and posed the question as to why someone would coerce a person to buy their cocaine, when instead they could take the money and keep their cocaine. Laymon’s question was intended to dispel the student’s blatantly racist suggestion that he was “forced” to buy the cocaine by a “big, dark, man,” whereas the board’s decision was made on the basis that they didn’t know what the student’s experience was. 

Kiese Laymon reading “Outside” Photo Credit: Victoria Garcia Unzueta

Laymon tied this back to his own experience as he was kicked out of college 10 years prior for taking a library book. Laymon explained that he had friends currently doing time in jail for far less cocaine than this, “small, smart, white boy.”  His story helped put into perspective not only the racial injustices that persons of color face within the incarceration system, but also the injustices faced in the world of academia. Laymon explained that his experience at Vassar College felt like he was confined to a dichotomy between old and new “Blackwork,” explaining, “teaching wealthy white boys like him meant to me that I was really being paid to fortify their power… that felt like new work to me, but it also felt like old Blackwork.”

Often in academia people of color are made to feel like they are “lucky” to be here, or that they should feel “privileged” that they didn’t end up like other members of their community, when in reality more people from multiply-marginalized backgrounds aren’t in higher education because of the institutionalized obstacles placed in their way. Educating dominant society on their power and privilege isn’t new work, but rather work that people of color have been doing for decades. 

Following the theme of educating others in an answer to a question that mentioned the “sad and depressed” system, Laymon explained that “learning how to accurately describe the system which you called sad and depressed is in it of itself a kind of liberatory act.” In order to create change and find ways to fix the broken system, we need to be able to educate others and learn to “accurately describe power and then think about our complicity in that system.” Change comes from within, and to create that change, we need to learn to accurately describe our experiences and explain the power and privilege within those experiences.  

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We Do Language: Nikki Giovanni A 2019 Legacy Seminar Encounter

Posted Posted in Guest Blogger, Uncategorized

[By: Shayna S. Israel]

 

2019 Legacy SeminarPhoto Credit: Furious Flower Poetry Center 2019

The Furious Flower Poetry Center has held biennial summer legacy seminars since 2009 (with a hiatus in 2013 and 2015), a focused opportunity to study the work of a living poet.  Beginning with Lucille Clifton,  seminars have been held on Sonia Sanchez (2011) and Yusef Komunyakaa (2017). As the nation’s only center devoted to Black poetry, Furious Flower’s choice of Nikki Giovanni for the June 2019 seminar gave many a chance to witness the legacy of performing and presenting against well-worn academic notions of conference-going rhetorical practice.  As noted by the Washington Post as far back at 1994, Furious Flower, the vision of founder Joanne Gabbin, is not interested in giving us  “. . . just another academic conference, dominated by the presentation of papers and trade gossip,” but has always infused “bongos,” “an ancestral praise chant” and “heavyweight academic sessions with cerebral titles like ‘African American Poetry and the Vernacular Matrix.

Val Gray Ward with JMU students Photo Credit: Geoffrey Forrest Hicks

The structure of the seminar-event was like none other I have seen. Scholars of Nikki Giovanni’s work and teachers looking for professional development, and graduate students like me could expect the guest of honor throughout the entire event, the living legend herself: Nikki. Now and again her long-time friends would drop in, like Val Gray Ward arts activist, playwright, and producer.

Embedded in the seminar was a structural challenge to a Western notion of editorial remove by having the subject present for her “objective” and pre-scheduled critique. It challenged presenters to perform their fidelity to the discipline in not holding back pointed critique—essentially, an academic version of “telling it like it is,” right before the person.

What each of the seminar participants took away from the experience is not easily translated into words, and like them, I am still processing.   I can share one experience that set the tone for the week as a whole.  It occurred on day 1, as Professor Giovanni—who likes to go by just Nikki—spoke during the Guided Reading Discussion.  Her thoughts on family, land and living in a close-knit fashion were as much of a political statement for African-Americans as it was her personal experience.

She created a connection between eminent domain and the Bottom in Philadelphia, gentrification in Harlem, and the ghettoization of black people during the Industrial Era to urban centers as massive dispossession—living together and on the land or in the mountains for marginalized communities is an act of resistance.

Nikki spoke, occasionally holding back, it seemed, both tears and invectives when recounting childhood memories of her brother and her grandmother. Her family did get 40 acres and a mule, she told us—and that was “a political statement” (2019).

From the beginning, I think the shimmering smiles, the fluorescent shades of brown, the plurality of women whose minds were, it seemed, visibly abuzz with investigation and inquiry—caught me. Their calm yet peaked faces were sweetened, a blessed assurance that sitting in the moment that was gathered, something would yield. I was slowly enveloped into the amber of the event. I couldn’t yet speak. So, I listened.

WinterGreen Panel/Mutal Adirmation Society: Daryl Lynn Dance, Jessea Gabbin, Daryl Dance, Maryemma Graham, Trudier Harris
Photo Credit: Jamaica Baldwin

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A Dying Democracy

Posted Posted in Uncategorized

[By: Jerry Ward, Jr.]

 

We live in paradox.  It is a “truth,” universally recognized and universally denied in contemporary American society, that democracy is dying.  Recognition that this “truth” is not a “false-truth” can be enhanced by reading Lynch’s book in tandem with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students ( New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987) in order to behold what prism refracts conservative and liberal ideologies simultaneously.  The prism is digital technology, the powerful impact of the Internet and commerce with social media. It is necessary for some thinkers, or at least thinkers who have the luxury to be philosophical,  to compare Bloom’s conclusion with Lynch’s and to recover memory. Recovery is necessary but not sufficient, unless the gesture is transformed from enthralling theory into pragmatic actions.

 

Behold the conclusions:

“This very reason [you can’t speak truth to power if power speaks truth by definition] is why it is crucial to slow down the spread of tribal arrogance —especially among those of us convinced we wear the armor of righteousness.”

Bloom:  “This is the American moment in world history, the one for which we shall forever be judged.  Just as in politics, the responsibility for the fate of freedom in the world has devolved upon our regime, so the fate of philosophy in the world has devolved upon our universities, and the two are related as they have never been before.  The gravity of our given task is great, and it is very much in doubt how the future will judge our stewardship” (382).

Lynch:  “This very reason [you can’t speak truth to power if power speaks truth by definition] is why it is crucial to slow down the spread of tribal arrogance —especially among those of us convinced we wear the armor of righteousness. It is also why we should not give up on truth and humility, and why neither information pollution nor polarization should make us abandon them.  When we own what we don’t know and remain open to what others do, we exemplify a basic respect for our fellow citizens that is demanded by democracy. We may never completely  realize the ideal of respect —the ideal of living in a society that treats people equally, that achieves social justice, that values truth and reasons, and that rejects arrogance and dogmatism.  But these are goals worth striving for, and it would be perverse to give up on them just when they are under threat.  It is precisely then that democratic ideals matter most” (170). 

 

Bloom’s arrogance was imperial and tinged with what is currently identified as the American dream of white superiority, and the neo-fascist contours of the dream may be alarming.  Lynch, who is not immune to the arrogance of righteousness, is at once nuanced and condemned by a holding fast to the optimism from which Bloom distanced himself. He is subject to the consolation of philosophy in a nation where a large number citizens think philosophy is a cuspidor of fake nonsense.  Arrogance wears many ignorant guises.

Should we want to up the ante by way of conclusions, we might ponder how Marilynne Robinson ends her essay “Which Way to the City on a Hill?,” published in New York Review of Books, July 18, 2019: 43-46, an essay occupying a middle ground between Lynch and Bloom.

“Those who control the word “American” control the sense of the possible. Our public is far more liberal than our politics. Our politics must change if there is to be any future for representative democracy.” 

Robinson:  “We know our penal system is unfair and inhumane, that our treatment of immigrants threatens the ideal of a just nation.  Why are we paralyzed in the face of these issues of freedom and humanity? Why are we alienated from a history that could help us find a deep root in liberality and shared and mutual happiness?  Those who control the word “American” control the sense of the possible. Our public is far more liberal than our politics. Our politics must change if there is to be any future for representative democracy” (46). 

 

Robinson is ironic, in a fashion that Bloom and Lynch are not,  as she invokes a history authorized and even in 2019 authored by what Charles Mills aptly named the racial contract, by what Lynch urges us to admit is implacable enslavement to overvaluing what pretends to be knowledge, what in actually is an ocean of ideas governed by algorithms.  Perhaps Lynch dealt in greater detail with artificial intelligence and the panoptical his earlier book The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data (2017), because a more trenchant analysis is needed than his merely noting that algorithms are use to curate online and offline lives (29).  The gravity of having such analysis can be appreciated by dwelling on the dialectic between individual and group decision-making, one topic that Jared Diamond  explored among many others in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005).  Navigating among the ideas of Bloom, Mills, Robinson, Diamond, and Lynch is an excruciating journey.  It is, nevertheless, essential for reckoning with a family of militant and tragic insanities which seek to hold all Americans hostage in the Age of Trump.  It can be argued to some degree that many Americans follow their leader just as the eponymous character in Melville’s Benito Cereno followed his into a virtually terminal illness. In other words, many Americans are playing dangerous games of political suicide as they condone aspects  of violence that can boomerang.

“We shall never know it all. We are not equipped to be omniscient. But as our nation drifts slowly into its fated ending, what we are equipped to know is how reprehensible, abject stupidity can hasten passage into concentration camps and early graves.”

Know-It-All Society is a timely warning that the  power of long-term exposure to the  digital may be irreversibly altering how our brains function and how we make choices of all kinds.   We can be reasonably certain that such power is more than a bio-cultural accident. It quickens desire to know how effectively cognitive science might help us to comprehend  the primary reasons for the dying of American democracy . As many of my ancestors would put it, democracy is in low cotton. It would be foolhardy to believe the audacity of hope and the arrogance of optimism will create an escape from barbarism or willful forms of domestic and foreign terrorism or  provide any relief from our endless, existential struggles against the cosmic Siamese twins named totalitarianism and capitalism. We shall never know it all. We are not equipped to be omniscient. But as our nation drifts slowly into its fated ending, what we are equipped to know is how reprehensible, abject stupidity can hasten passage into concentration camps and early graves. 


Jerry W. Ward, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of English at Dillard University, Honorary Professor at Central China Normal University, and HBW Board Member (Emeritus).

Toni Morrison Remembered

Posted Posted in Uncategorized
Toni Morrison Memorial in Kansas City.

In 1985-1986, I had the great fortune of winning an NEH Fellowship for Individual Study and Research.  At the time, I was teaching at the University of Kentucky, with Zora Neale Hurston scholar Bob Hemenway, Callaloo editor Charles Rowell, and the ineffable scholar-teacher Sandra Y. Govan.  It was an uplifting, timely gift, rescuing me from several life changes that had morphed into life challenges.  The purpose of the fellowship was to research and write a study on a now arcane idea about Sterling A. Brown—his professed belief in critical realism.  With encouragement, I applied for a position at Yale as a Research Fellow. The eminent scholar Robert Stepto agreed to be my faculty sponsor. Armed with my NEH, I took off for New Haven for what would prove to be a series of magnificent experiences.

One of them occurred on a Saturday afternoon when a special program on storytelling took place.  You must remember that Topeka, Kansas; Omaha, Neb.; and even Minneapolis, MN—all places where I’d earned degrees—had not prepared this Midwesterner for the prestige and historical significance of an Ivy League school.  Wide-eyed with wonder, I came to understand what made Yale and the other institutions elite. Speakers, artists, concerts, and much more, featuring the names of individuals whose works defined the fields we studied, routinely appeared at Yale.  On this afternoon, the program consisted of Toni Morrison and August Wilson, moderated by Robert Stepto.

As I walked up to the Yale Repertory Theatre, where the program was to take place, a long, stretch limousine pulled up and parked at the curb.  I remembered hearing stories about Toni Morrison and her insistence on going first class. And, lo, who gets out but Toni Morrison!! I followed her into the theatre and found a decent seat to enjoy what promised to be an extraordinary dialogue.  As moderator, Robert Stepto did his job effectively and efficiently. He welcomed everyone, gave the barest of introduction to two people who needed none, and then yielded the lectern to Toni Morrison. Thirty years later, I cannot recall the specifics of her remarks.  I was still fighting the effects of being mesmerized by THE star in the firmament of African American fiction, and, frankly, by being at Yale too. But I do recall how insightful, poignant, and brilliant she was that day. She delved into the traditions of American and African American narratives, perhaps warming up to Playing in the Dark.  Some of the details of August Wilson’s presentation, however, were permanently etched into my memory. 

August Wilson eschewed the traditional “academic” talk and proceeded to tell us a long, winding, absorbing story.  He recounted growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, struggling with high school, and seeking to find his own education in books that interested him.  One bookstore was very crucial in his learning process because the owners often purchased remaindered books and sold them cheaply. When the front covers of the paperbacks were torn off, that meant the books could be purchased for a dime.  He found one such book and, after buying it, read it voraciously in one sitting. It was so fascinating that he went back and bought five more copies and handed them out to his friends. They read it and engaged in deep discussions about character, plot, and narrative development.  By this time, we in the audience, who had hung on his every word, had our curiosity piqued by one nagging question: what book could be so arresting that his cohort of nontraditional learners found themselves captured by its richness? Finally, when we were nearly squirming in our seats with anticipation about the book’s title, he mercifully released us from the entangled web of the story he told.  He recited, verbatim: “Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. . . .” Yes, he quoted the first two pages of The Bluest Eye.  And everyone, even Toni Morrison, went wild!! 

Part remarks on the nature of Black storytelling, part homage to Toni Morrison, and part artistic performance—August Wilson was simply exquisite that day.  With Toni Morrison’s passing, efforts to define her influence, her extraordinary talent, and her essence will take place. No tribute, however, will be greater than the one August Wilson paid that day.   



 

 

 

Dr. John Edgar Tidwell is a Professor Emeritus from the University of Kansas’ Department of English

 

A Day on the Mississippi Writers Trail

Posted Posted in Uncategorized

[By: Maryemma Graham]

Margaret Walker (1915-1998) would have turned 104 this past July 7, 2019.  The poet, novelist, educator and cultural critic was part of a distinct tradition of writing that is too easily forgotten.  A tradition of truth-telling that makes us see and understand ourselves and our relationship to others differently. Walker’s history may not be as well known to some, but she was a “national treasure,” as former Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William R. Ferris, once told an audience.  For those who did know her also knew that Walker loved a party, celebrations were her forte, and she didn’t wait for others to organize them.  Known for her elaborate backyard cookouts, her exquisite culinary skills, especially her New Orleans gumbo, and black-tie events, Walker brought her celebrity friends and politicians to meet ordinary folk in Jackson, Mississippi, the place she called home for five decades. 

The notoriety that had become Mississippi’s mantra, Margaret Walker turned on its head, showing us a different Mississippi and the beginning of a newly awakened America. Most know her for “For My People,” first published in 1937 and the title poem of her 1942 award-winning collection; it is one of the most anthologized poems of all times.  According to poet and educator C. Liegh McInnis, her literary manifesto appeared much earlier. As a college student, she met W. E. B. DuBois, then editor of The Crisis. He published her poem “I Want to Write” in a 1934 issue. 

I want to write
I want to write the songs of my people.
I want to hear them singing melodies in the dark.
I want to catch the last floating strains from their sob-torn 
throats.
I want to frame their dreams into words; their souls into
notes.

I want to catch their sunshine laughter in a bowl;
fling dark hands to a darker sky
and fill them full of stars
then crush and mix such lights till they become
a mirrored pool of brilliance in the dawn.

Since her passing in 1998, the Margaret Walker Center has held an annual birthday celebration for Walker, but this year’s celebration was different.  Not only did it come one day after her birthday, but it was the state of Mississippi who threw the party. Gathered on the lawn in front of the historic Ayer Hall at Jackson State University, friends and admirers watched the unveiling of the newest marker on the Mississippi Writers Trail.  True to form, the occasion attracted young students who came to pay tribute, symbolizing the thousands who had passed through the doors of Jackson State University and felt Walker’s impact during her lengthy teaching career there.

Walker was born and spent her early childhood in Birmingham, Alabama but grew up in New Orleans. Both experiences gave her an intimate knowledge of the South. If she found her voice in Chicago after completing college and beginning her professional writing career, she found a home for life in Mississippi, the place where her writing came full circle.  Her seven published books include Jubilee (1966), the long-awaited family chronicle based upon her grandmother’s stories about slavery, three poetry volumes, a biography of Richard Wright, another famous Mississippian, and two collections of her essays.

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