In Memoriam: Toni Morrison

Posted Posted in HBW
Credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

The Project on the History of Black Writing mourns the death of the incomparable Toni Morrison. A literary icon and our friend, we have long admired her brilliance, literary genius, and love of our culture. There are simply no words to describe the impact Toni Morrison has made on all of us as readers, writers, and researchers. Equally there are no words to fully capture the imprint she has left on our collective identity. Join us in lifting up her memory and reflecting on her legacy.

Toni Morrison Revisited: A Collection of HBW Posts on Morrison

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye: Black Girls as Central Figures and escaping essentialist representations.

Playing in the Sunlight: Colors of Imagination, or Toni Morrison Revisited on her prose in Playing the Dark.

Toni Morrison: A Full Circle in Motion and In Toni Morrison’s Latest Novel, Black (Children’s) Lives Matter, on Morrison’s extraordinary storytelling and her novel God Help the Child (2015).

Language Mattersa national educational and service initiative of the Toni Morrison Society. Established in 2001, it provided opportunities for interactive dialogue among school teachers and between teachers and scholars, and to create appropriate instructional materials for those teaching imaginative literature, especially the novels of Toni Morrison in secondary school classrooms. Language Matters was coordinated by HBW and was a three-time NEH grant recipient.

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

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, a documentary film

The Toni Morrison Society

25 Toni Morrison Quotes that Left Me Shook

Princeton’s reflection on Toni Morrison, Nobel-winning author and emeritus Princeton faculty member

NPR on Toni Morrison, Whose Soaring Novels Were Rooted In Black Lives

Toni Morrison, ‘Beloved’ Author and Nobel Laureate


Morrison mural in Paris, unveiled during Legion of Honor Award festivities in 2010. Graffiti artist unknown. Credit: C.B. Claiborne
Morrison unveiling a “Bench by the Road” commemorating the abolition of slavery in Paris, France, 2010. Credit: C.B. Claiborne
Morrison with Richard Danielpour, Hank and Billye Aaron at the New York premiere of the opera Margaret Garner in 2005.









Credit: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images






“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” – Toni Morrison

Rest in Peace Chloe A. “Toni” (Wofford) Morrison

The Stone that the Builder Refused: An Interview with Naomi Long Madgett

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By: Morgan McComb

The black women’s literary renaissance of the 1970s saw the emergence of some of today’s most accomplished black women writers: Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Rita Dove, Maya Angelou, among them. On the heels of — and often inspired by — the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, black women writers carved out their own space, ushering in a period of continuous productivity. Their writing addressed race, gender and class, exploring a fuller, more multidimensional black womanhood and black women’s identities. Though some of the best-known black women writers saw their careers burgeoning during this period, there is one influential figure whose name is rarely remembered as part of the canon: Detroit Poet Laureate, educator, and founder and editor of Lotus Press, Naomi Long Madgett.

Naomi Long Madgett reads from the lectern during the Phillis Wheatley Festival at Jackson State University in 1973. Photo courtesy of Roy Lewis.

Notably, Madgett began writing and publishing much earlier than Toni Morrison or Alice Walker. Her first poetry collection Songs to a Phantom Nightingale (1941) was published when she was only 17. Her next volume, One and the Many, followed in 1956. In 1970, to that prestigious corpus of work produced by black women writers, Madgett added her third  volume of poetry Star by Star (1970) and two years later, Pink Ladies in the Afternoon. With four volumes of poetry, she was one of the headliners at the 1973 Phillis Wheatley Festival, organized by her friend and fellow poet Margaret Walker. Before the end of the decade, Madgett had published her fifth volume Exits and Entrances (1978) a volume exploring race, class, and gender in earnest.

After reading Madgett’s poetry and her autobiography Pilgrim Journey (Broadside Lotus Press, 2006), I was struck immediately by the range of her topics and questioned why she had not received more critical attention. During our interview in July 2017, she discussed her own experiences as a woman poet, especially the difficulties finding a publisher for her fourth collection Pink Ladies“That was during a period when everything was rage and anger. Nobody seemed to be interested in that poetry [that focused on black women’s experiences beyond race] . . .either you were too black or not black enough and I wasn’t black enough. But I was determined to get the book published…”

(Left-Right) Dorothy Porter (1905-95), Sarah Webster Fabio (1928-79), Margaret Walker (1915-98), Gloria Oden (1923-2011), and Margaret Danner (1915-84) look on as Madgett reads. Photo Courtesy of Roy Lewis.


Counterpublics, Public Intellectuals, and Exodusters: An Interview with Frank Farmer (Part II)

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By: Christopher Peace

We are pleased to conclude our two-part interview with Frank Farmer, a leading figure in Composition Studies and Rhetoric who recently retired from KU after joining the English faculty in 2000. Among many topics covered in this conversation, Farmer discusses public intellectuals, Nicodemus, KS, and what’s in store for him next. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, but you may read the full interview here.

Dr. Frank Farmer

Part II. The Counter Public Intellectual and P(l)aying it Forward

Peace: The word or the phrase “public intellectual” comes up a lot, and I see that phrase when I read in rhetoric and composition. What would you say a public intellectual is? I know you kind of compare it to composition study’s position in the public sphere saying that people do not believe that it was legitimate or not in style. We used style differently. We aren’t so cutesy or artistic. So, with all of that in the idea of public, I guess, can you talk around that?

Farmer: Well, I think, fortunately, the public intellectual is a fast-fading figure, that this figure we used to agonize about and wrangle over—that this figure is a passing one; it’s vanishing from the intellectual landscape. There has been a great deal of scholarship in composition trying to understand the public intellectual and whether or not compositionists have roles as public intellectuals. And there have been people who have made that case. Unfortunately, and as is too often the case, the public intellectual has been construed by many as something of a “hero intellectual” or a “celebrity intellectual.” The public intellectual, in other words, was someone who was to be admired for his or her exemplary gifts, insights, opinions on matters of public concern.

I think compositionists are right not to aspire to be public intellectuals of that sort. We do intellectual work, yes, but not from the elevated realms of the traditional public intellectual. Our intellectual work is rather to be found in activist initiatives, in community literacy projects, in identity concerns, and in local deliberations, all of which pursuits might find our special kind of expertise useful. It might even be more helpful for compositionists to think of themselves as counterpublic intellectuals. In fact, I wondered if there might be such a thing as a disciplinary counterpublic, when I discovered that several years ago [that] Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren had argued that teacher training programs were sites of counterpublic activity. I also discovered that there were people in Science and Technology Studies (STS) who were writing about possible counterpublics within scientific communities. There’s a certain kind of resonance with that term “intellectual” that is confounding, but I take heart in the fact Adam Banks, one of our past Langston Hughes professors at KU, has stated on his blog that we need some “new, different kind of intellectuals . . . counter-public intellectuals.” I think there are problems and challenges to work through if you’re making the case for a counterpublic intellectual, but I believe the effort would be worth it. Does that make sense?

Dr. Adam Banks at KU, 2010

Peace: Yes, that makes sense. This takes me to my next question because you ask readers to consider the potential of composition’s counter-complicity by insinuating ourselves in debates and conversations that were never meant to include us to begin with. Then, you also argue that we do this by exploiting an ambiguity that exist[s] between the addressivity of audiences and publics through the arts of bricolage, which might be the methodology best suited for all counterpublics. How do we do this?

Farmer: Wow, you’re testing my memory!

Peace: Yes! In other words, how do we move forward in insinuating ourselves into the discourse that was never meant for us?

Farmer: Right. That’s an interesting phenomenon. I mean it has to do with a kind of audience agency. We tend to not think of audiences as having agency or potential agency at all. You know the famous formulation in composition studies between audience addressed and audience invoked? Both of those tend to posit the audience as recipients of whatever discourse the rhetor is promoting. But can you make yourself an audience for a discourse that never intended you to be an audience? I think audience agency matters. In fact, at the risk of simplifying things, I believe a number of social movements of the late 60s and 70s occurred when people chose to see the exclusionary discourses of others as addressed to them. For example: “Well, if you’re going to talk about women this way, I’m a woman, and I’m going to answer you because I’m going to make myself an audience to your discourse, and by virtue of you doing that, I’m going to answer you back.” You see what I’m saying? There are conventional exclusions when certain people are not meant to be an audience, but what if they make themselves one? What if you say, “Enough of that. I’m going to be in your audience and you’re going to say this to me, and I’m going to answer you back.” I mean, again at the risk of oversimplifying it, it seems to me that earlier feminist movements, the Civil Rights movement, queer identity movement—members of these groups were no longer content to be talked about but rather insisted on being talked to.

Peace: What is the next big thing in rhetoric and composition in your opinion or the next big turn?

Circulation, Writing, and Rhetoric edited by Laurie Gries & Collin Gifford Brooke (2018)

Farmer: You know, it is such a fool’s game to do prophecy, especially in our field! I can only spot the identifiable trends. As I mentioned, Laurie Gries and others have named what is now known as circulation studies. And I think they’re right to do so, because this new specialty has spawned a lot of very interesting work. But as far as what else is new on the horizon, I wish I knew that. I might start my career over again with that knowledge! It is an interesting question because, as you know, there is a certain perishability to the themes, issues, and concerns that we take on as scholars, right? You’ll be trained in a certain way and ten years down the road, you’ll notice that no one is really paying attention to that anymore. In my case, for example, I began as a Bakhtin scholar working in rhetoric and composition, but after a while, I realized that Bakhtin’s heyday was long gone. And so, we scholars often shift thematic gears in order to be responsive, in a timely way, about what is going on our fields. So, as far as being able to know what to predict…can I ask you the question? What do you think is happening? Of all sources?


Counterpublics, Public Intellectuals, and Exodusters: An Interview with Frank Farmer (Part I)

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By: Christopher Peace

We are pleased to present this two-part interview with Frank Farmer, a leading figure in Composition Studies and Rhetoric who recently retired from KU after joining the English faculty in 2000. Among many topics covered in this conversation, Farmer discusses one of his most influential books, After the Public Turn: Composition, Counterpublics and the Citizen Bricoleur (2013), and the idea of “counterpublics” in depth. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, but you may read the full interview here.

Dr. Frank Farmer

Part I. Writing as Making and the Circulation Turn

Peace: Has your definition of the term “counterpublics” changed in any sense since the publication of After the Public Turn? You mentioned there was a definitional ambiguity around this term. So, has it become clearer?

Farmer: It has, indeed, because counterpublics, in composition scholarship anyway, have begun to receive increased attention. When I wrote that book, there had been some scholarship in composition devoted to inquiries into counterpublics, but not a whole lot. And part of the reason for writing the book was to make the case that counterpublics are something we need to look at more closely. My central example, as you know, is zine culture, but there are other examples too. If you go back three decades, Nancy Fraser looks at feminist subaltern counterpublics. And Michael Warner is primarily concerned with queer counterpublics. I chose to examine alternative culture as a counterpublic, specifically of those folks who make zines. But there’s been very interesting work with other counterpublics as that concept gets filtered through a variety of community literacy projects. More recently, scholars have been investigating the emergence of digital counterpublics, and what that could possibly mean. My sense is that, while there’s hardly been a deluge of new interest in counterpublics, it has definitely increased since the time of my book’s publication. I like to think my book contributed to this increased attention, but I don’t know that to be the case. But there are encouraging signs. One piece I read recently dealt with Black Muslim feminist counterpublics online, and the dangers, as well as the benefits, for those who belong to that counterpublic, so….

After the Public Turn: Composition, Counterpublics and the Citizen Bricoleur (2013)

Peace: At the beginning, you talk a lot about turns. We always talk about turns in composition. The digital turn, for example. So, you say the public turn is not subsumed by the cultural turn. Do you think turns are just subsumed under other turns, or these turns connected to a bigger picture?

Farmer: That’s such an interesting metaphor or characterization for how disciplines progress, and it goes way back, long before composition’s celebrated social turn, which is the most famous in our own disciplinary history. It goes back, in my mind anyway, to Richard Rorty’s linguistic turn in philosophy, where philosophers turned their attention to language in ways that have proven to be productive. But beyond that, and insofar as composition goes, the most momentous turn since the social turn of the 1980’s was composition’s public turn. My point about subsuming is that we are wrong to think that one turn simply replaces another. We cannot simply assert that, “Oh, that was the social turn; now we’re doing the public turn; and now we’re doing the cultural turn, and now the digital turn,” etc. Turns, in other words, simply mark shifts in emphasis. New turns do not announce the death of previous turns. Turns are imbricated, layered, complicated.      

The most recent turn I’ve come across is the apocalyptic turn, and honestly, we seem to need the turning metaphor as a way of explaining new ideas and trends that turn up, so to speak. I would say, and I think you might agree, that we have a new materialist turn underway. We also have a turn toward circulation studies right now. So, there are many, turns out there. But, once again, they don’t substitute or replace one another. They accumulate with their distinctions intact; that’s probably the best way to put it.

Peace: Nice, accumulation. Also, you talk about public and private, and how some scholars don’t believe in the private sphere anymore. Could you talk more about that? You question the view that rhetoric has always been public.

Farmer: Yes, I think that there have always been non-public rhetorics. I believe that such rhetorics are typically manifested in everyday exchanges and conversations, in the things we say to one another to get our way, you know, all of the taken-for-granted ways that rhetoric is a part of everyday life. And so I had to stand up for the private sphere as well. And by “private” I don’t   refer to the sphere of free enterprise or to the unrestrained pursuit of capital. By private, I mean that we have an interpersonal sphere, a family sphere, a friendship sphere, a social media sphere, and so on. I guess I’m too much of a structuralist to believe that a public sphere can exist without a private sphere. If everything is public, then nothing is public. Even though my work is centrally concerned with the public sphere, I believe a private sphere—or rather, spheres—actually exist and that they ought to be honored.


Black Poetry: Now and in the Future

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[Simone Savannah]

Kevin Young, Elizabeth Alexander, Toi Derricotte, Tracy Smith, Harriette Mullen, Yusef Komunyakaa, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, Rita Dove and Kwame Dawes

In the tradition of black poetry and writing conferences, such as the 1966 Black Writers Conference at Fisk, the 2019 Black Poetry: A Conference served as a distinct space through which we honored the history and future of black poetry. Black Poetry was curated by Tracy K. Smith, Joshua Kotin, and Jaamil Olawale Kosoko. Smith, current U.S. Poet Laureate, is the Director of  Princeton University’s Creative Writing program. They sought for us to “consider the most urgent social, political and artistic questions of our time.” Four provocations, along with the panels, captured the conference’s commitment to black poets and their creating social, political and artistic discussions through art. Through performance poetry and discussions of poetry and performance, M.NourbeSe Philip, Tyehimba Jess, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, and Nathaniel Mackey examined memory, death, loss, the blues, and seriality as they relate to black voices.

In connection with the conference, Black Poetry: A Gala Reading took place the night before the first provocation. And it was surely in the spirit of Valentine’s Day – each of us swooning to Rita Dove’s performance of “For My Valentine ,” and to the poems of Kwame Dawes, Harryette Mullen, Kevin Young, Haki Madhubuti, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Sonia Sanchez, as well as the memoirs of Elizabeth Alexander and Toi Derricotte. 

Tracy K. Smith


We encountered poetry.

The conference featured over 40 black poets who also performed their work and delivered papers in a series of readings and panels. The poets responded to what poet and scholar Eve L. Ewing described as “assertions thinly disguised as questions.” Many of them opened with poems, as well as singing and dancing, leading us into the possibilities of poetic practice.

Panel 1:  History/Ritual, with moderator Roger Reeves and panelists Joanne V. Gabbin, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Shane McCrae, and Haki Madhubuti, responded to several assertions about the history of black poetry, particularly the ways in which black poets create disturbance:

Black poets create a disturbance, and the disturbances in black poetry serve as a means of confronting the actual (history, politics, social reality) and conjuring the possible (joy, revolution, hope)

Black poets and black poetry (and writing) conferences invoke traditional and nontraditional practices towards examining history and creating space for more of this

Panel 2: Words/Music moderated by Vievee Francis and featuring panelists Cornelius Eady, Douglas Kearney, Jessica Care Moore, Fred Moten, and Sonia Sanchez reflected on the relationships between words and music. We listened to Gil Scott Heron, The Temptations, and we sang back to Douglas Kearney multiple iterations of Jennifer Holiday’s 1982 “And I Am Tellin’ You”. The black poets made these assertions:

Poetry is how to encounter music on paper

Music makes poetry accessible to people who aren’t book worms or who don’t go to book stores

Poetry is sometimes a search for sound, not structure

We create art out of social life, then we throw it back into society as a way toward survival – words and music is how we work shit out

Panel 3: Embodiment/Disembodiment included Deana Lawson, Robin Coste Lewis, Dawn Lundy Martin, and J Mase III, and moderator Saeed Jones explored the poetics of embodied experience – how such a poetics confronts and revises forms of embodiment that have been informed by heteronormativity and white supremacy. The poets examined notions of conscious embodiment and what it means to live in a queer body, asking:

What is a poetics of embodiment for queer black poets?

How have a poetics of embodied experience relocated art’s engagement with the mind or imagination to the body itself?

Panel 4: National/International with Mahogany L. Brown, Myronn Hardy, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Lemn Sissay, Patricia Smith, Camae Ayewa spoke to the possibilities of blackness, disrupting our notions of country as a physical thing. Eve L. Ewing opened with two poems including Safia Elhillo’s “& what is a country but the drawing of a line”


“today i draw thick black lines around my eyes & they are a country & thick red lines around my lips & they are a country & the knife that chops the onions draws a smooth line through my finger & that is a country & the tightening denim presses a soft purple line into my belly & when i smile like my mother a little black line flashes in between my two front teeth & for every country that i’ve lost i make another & i make another”


What is a border and what does it matter to diasporic people?

Patricia Smith spoke: I was told the country I was born into would be the only country I would ever have

and we walked away counting the countries in our bodies. Literal and figurative. 

Elizabeth Alexander


We did poetry.

The readings were a significant contribution to Black Poetry: A Conference, emphasizing the organizers’ international and inter-generational vision, and their honoring of emerging voices. Sharing the stage with influential and celebrated poets such as Natasha Trethewey, Terrance Hayes, and Nikky Finney, affirmed poets like Taylor Johnson and their rightful place in celebrations and discussions of black poetry. Before reading from her debut collection Collective Amnesia (2017), Koleka Putuma (arriving from South Africa) remarked that she was honored to be reading with poets that have been a part of her academic and personal curriculum for years: “I like to think that I called this moment into my life.”

The poets – Jericho Brown, Camille Dungy, Nikky Finney, Taylor Johnson, Jessica Care Moore, Ed Roberson, Natasha Trethewey, Morgan Parker, Simone White, Koleka Putuma, and Terrance Hayes – showed us how to do poetry, the possibilities of doing poetry:


During the final reading, Terrance Hayes began with a draft of an email honoring to Tracy K. Smith. His email – which was undeniably a poem – reminded us of the work of a poet like Tracy K. Smith. We are so thankful for her commitment to creating space for poets to celebrate themselves and the work that they do artistically and professionally. Black Poetry: A Conference recognizes those who do poetry, and those who love the folks that do poetry. I am so honored to have lived this history, to have witnessed this doing of tradition.

Simone Savannah graduated with her  Ph.D. in English-Creative Writing at the University of Kansas in 2017. Simone received her BA in English-Creative Writing and MEd in Cultural Studies from Ohio University. Her research interests include African American Literature & Poetry, Black Feminism/Womanism, and Black Female Sexuality. She is currently working on a chapbook of poems based on the psychology of love and sexuality.

In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens

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Photo taken by Christopher Peace during ZORA! Festival.

“It is one of the blessings of this world that few people see visions and dream dreams.”

–Zora Neale Hurston

I arrived in Eatonville, Florida, in December 2018 to work as the first graduate intern for the 30th annual ZORA! Festival of the Arts and Humanities. I had crossed such a boundary—from the scholar I thought I was becoming to a hands-on practitioner– when Dr. Graham, Director of the Project on the History of Black Writing, asked if I would be interested in working directly in Eatonville for the festival.  I was excited for the opportunity and overjoyed to walk the very streets and inhabit the spaces where Hurston had been. People there call her Zora. I’d been reading about this place since the ninth grade when we were assigned Their Eyes Were Watching God. Why the book stuck with me, I don’t know.  But by the time I was ready to write a master’s thesis years later, I knew that I wanted to explore Hurston’s ethnographic novels and her methods of crossing cultural boundaries to collect and preserve cultural memes.

Once I placed my clothes in the drawers of a dresser at my host family’s house, I felt as if I was integrated in the culture that Hurston spent her life preserving. “Two breaths that way, and you’re out of Eatonville,” said NY Nathiri, the executive director for P.E.C (Association for the Preservation of the Eatonville Community), the parent organization for the festival. Eatonville’s small size belies its historic importance as the oldest Black municipality in the United States, a community held together by the material significance of cultural preservation and folk stories. NY, as everyone calls her, was born there, too, and she is committed to the preservation of the town and its people, just as Zora was.

I quickly adjusted to the role of the festival intern.  It was my job to compile the main program guide for every activity of the ZORA! Festival, while attending city hall meetings, engaging with the spatial parameters of the festival, creating signs and maps for special events and organizing data for graphic design and digitization. Being in such close proximity with several museum and festival staff allowed me to form connections with people in the field who gave me an insider’s view on the ways in which oral histories and cultural preservation sustain a community.

My interests in African-American folklore and the rhetoric of space and place were tested during the 5 weeks.  I was in real-world contexts, seeing the ways in which places and towns serve as rhetorical agents and create social identity. My “Public Genres and Social Action” professor asked me to take notes of the discourse and genres I encountered during the festival. Although I was very busy from sunup to beyond sundown, I noticed several genres that lead to social action during the festival, one being what I would call “car talk.” When I picked up several distinguished professors in the field of African American literature, our conversations revolve around Hurston, culture, food, locations, program activities, directions and locations, and my own scholarly interests. Dr. Trudier Harris of the University of Alabama had an interesting story about cooking cornbread and collard greens she shared with me. Dr. Cheryl Wall of Rutgers University introduced me to her most recent book on the African American essay as a genre. Dr. Ruth Sheffey, a long-time professor at Morgan State University, told me personal stories about Zora that I would have never known. I listened closely; being in this cherished space offered me information that semester of instruction could not have taught me in a classroom.

I was asked to drive Alice Walker to Zora’s gravesite in Fort Pierce, Florida. Although I was somewhat nervous, we arrived safely to the site, some two hours outside of Eatonville. It took us around 20 minutes to find the proper cemetery, and I cracked a joke that we were still in search of our mother’s gardens. Because Walker recorded her search for Hurston’s unmarked gravesite in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983), being with her in this place was a transformative moment that I could have only dreamed about had it not been for my involvement with the festival.

I continue to use this experience in my scholarly and professional development after the end of this year’s festival. For example, in my “Public Genre and Social Action” class, I am usually on the festival’s Facebook page to complete a genre system analysis on the activities that occur on the page. Being selected as a HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) Scholar at KU gives me the space to combine my interests in African-American folklore and digital humanities, while using Eatonville as a digital project. During the festival, I met and learned from Dr. Julian Chambliss, a member of the steering committee for HASTAC, who also happens to be on the national planner committee for the ZORA! Festival. He and others gave me valuable sources to help me combine my spatial interests to digital humanities. Over the course of these two years, I plan to use digital humanities resources to create a digital interactive map of the town of Eatonville, and possibly other Black settlements in the United States. Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, Inc. (HBTSA) was a major collaborator in this year’s festival, and their goals of promoting heritage, history, and culture inspired me to work with historical towns such as Eatonville. P.E.C. has a paper version of a walking tour for Eatonville, but I think digitizing resources would aid the organization in practical ways. My studies in rhetoric and composition allow me the space to examine certain written and digital genres that the festival and other cultural practices produce, just as the town of Eatonville helps me understand the sacredness of place and the richness of folkloric heritage.

One of the greatest impressions I have from my experience at the festival is that place matters; its history has a material weight that bears on the land. People ritualize territories through cultural practices that seek to preserve and expand culture while reaffirming their identity.

Eatonville is the only place in the South that could teach me the value of oral histories and the preservation of a people through the lens of Hurston’s tradition.

Chris is a doctoral student at the University of Kansas, Christopher Peace holds a B.A. in Writing from Mississippi College and a M.A. in Literature from Jackson State University, where he completed his thesis entitled, “Zora Neale Hurston’s Conjure Memes: A Post-structuralist Analysis of Mules and Men and Tell My Horse.” Some of his academic interests include African Diaspora spiritual systems, ecocomposition, and African American folklore.

Women’s History Month: Naomi Long Madgett

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Morgan McComb visits Naomi Long Madgett at her house to discuss her life’s work.

         Naomi Long Madgett, Detroit Poet Laureate and founder of the Detroit-based Lotus Press, was born into the Harlem Renaissance in 1923, the same year that Jean Toomer’s genre-defying novel Cane was published. Her first book of poetry Songs to a Phantom Nightingale appeared in 1941, when she was just seventeen years old. Madgett found mentors in both Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, and her poetry [MM1] appeared in Hughes’ 1949 anthology, The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949. Despite the fact that Madgett has published 10 books of poetry, she spent most of her time from the 1950s onwards juggling multiple careers as a high school teacher, a college professor, and an editor and publisher. Lotus Press, which she founded in 1972, has published more than 100 books of poetry, and her role as editor shifted her focus to others’ poetry rather than her own. As a result, little critical attention has been paid to her own creative work.

        A member of the Detroit Boone House group of poets from 1962-1964, Madgett was central to a community of Black poets, which included Margaret Danner (1915-1984) and longtime friend Dudley Randall (1914-2000). Madgett spent much of her early career as an educator in Detroit Public Schools—where she taught the school system’s first high school African American literature course—eventually teaching at Eastern Michigan University, where she was a professor of English until she retired to focus on the press in 1984. In 1993, Lotus Press created the Naomi Long Madgett award “to publish and outstanding manuscript by an African American poet.” In 2001, the city of Detroit named Madgett Poet Laureate and in 2012, she received Michigan’s Kresge Eminent Artist Award.

        Madgett’s own publication history is impressive, spanning over five decades of writing, including.  The 1941 publication of Songs to a Phantom Nightingale (1941) was followed by One and the Many (1956), Star by Star (1965), Pink Ladies in the Afternoon (1972), Exits and Entrances (1978), Phantom Nightingale: Juvenalia (1981), Octavia and Other Poems (1988), Remembrances of Spring: Collected Early Poems (1993), Octavia: Guthrie and Beyond (2002), and Connected Islands: New and Selected Poems (2004).  Despite her high level of productivity , Madgett had trouble finding an audience, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Both black and white publishers were looking for “identifiably Black” work rather than “a book of quiet, reflective poetry that dealt with race in more subtle ways, as well as the experience of being a woman, a divorcee, a single mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, and an observe of life as a total human being,” she says in her 2006 autobiography (Pilgrim Journey 313). It was her inability to find a publisher that led to Pink Ladies, which helped her to launch Lotus Press, with the help of a few friends. Thereafter, Madgett dedicated herself to creating a space for other Black poets to be published. In 2015, Lotus Press merged with Broadside Press, founded by Dudley Randall, giving birth to a new platform for continuing the foundational work both writers.

        In Pilgrim Journey, Madget explains that “[p]oetry reaches to the depth and breadth of human experience, expressing our loftiest aspirations, our greatest joys, our most crushing disappointments. It sustains us through our most devastating griefs” (391). With poetry that is both diverse and complex, she has consistently explored motherhood, memory, and loneliness, among other themes. A distinctive poetic voice, Madgett recognizes the necessity of reinvention. Now 95, she shows no signs of stopping:  Madgett forcing us to reckon with the complexities and contradictions of human identity through the rhythm of human language. In Madgett’s work, emotional intelligence coexists with a mastery of form, a coupling one rarely sees in poetry.

         As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we will continue to highlight Black women who have made history, like Naomi Long Madgett. An interview in addition to an educational video on her life and legacy will be published later this spring to bring her foundational work to the forefront.