The Project on the History of Black Writing mourns the passing of Kamau Brathwaite. The Barbadian poet and academic was 89 when he died in his home on Tuesday, February 4. Brathwaite’s writing mainly celebrated Caribbean voices and greatly contributed to the Caribbean’s literary landscape. Born in Bridgetown, Bahamas in 1930, Brathwaite’s poems examined African roots in the Caribbean, affirming the Afro-Caribbean identity and amplifying their experiences.
“My poetry has been concerned, for a long time now, with the attempt to reconstruct, in verse, in metric and in rhythms, the nature of the culture of the people of the Caribbean.”
“Brathwaite was much more concerned about understanding and highlighting native languages of African peoples as unique and sovereign expressions as a way to present African peoples as unique and sovereign beings rather than trying to convince white readers how much like white people black people can be. While taking that class on Caribbean poetry, I sent the paper that I wrote analyzing his work to him, just as my way of thanking him for influencing me. To my surprise, Brathwaite sent me a brief note, stating, “thank you for sharing your paper with me. I hope you received the A that you deserved.’”- C. Liegh McInnis, February 16, 2020
“To me, he was a big brother, distant in location but always warm when we were in each other’s presence. Kamau was personally introduced to me by my “homie”, big brother Tom Dent. The closer I became to Kamau, the more I admired him, learned from him, was amazed by him as a writer, a scholar, and a friend.”- Kalamu ya Salaam, February 6, 2020
“I start off with a Caribbean audience which is representative of the people who have been down-pressed. The audience is usually a mixed audience, moving in terms of class from college educated to middle class right up to the laboring class because that is how our society is composed.”
On celebrating Caribbean culture in his poetry:
“This involves not only discovering what I would call “new poetic forms” — a breakaway from the English pentameter — but also, and more importantly, discovering the nature of our folk culture, the myths, the legends, the speech rhythms, the way we express ourselves in words, the way we express ourselves in song. That has been my concern for about ten years and is increasingly so. One has to develop technical resources of a very complex nature and at the same time one has to get an increasing knowledge of who our people are, where they come from and the nature of their soul.”
On mystification in religion:
“It is not mystification at all, that’s the thing about it. The religion is so natural, it is so vital, it is so socially oriented, so people oriented that there is no mysticism — mental mystification — in it at all. That is really the difference between an African oriented religion and a European one. Theirs is very mystified because they are not dealing with a living god, they’re not dealing with man in relation to god in relation to community.”
“My poems start off as rhythms in my head, as patterns of songs which also have an objective. The patterns of songs have to say something, address themselves to some problems or go through some dialectical process. From my head they have to be transferred onto the page, because that’s how I started, but then from the page I instinctively transfer it on to song.”
In a rapidly changing education system, it can often be difficult to pinpoint if society is progressing or deteriorating. Behind institutionalized racism lies long-term consequences that studies show adolescents may carry with them for the rest of their lives. One of the most prevailing of these includes the school-to-prison-pipeline, which is the process in which children are pushed out of schools and into prisons and other justice systems. There can be several factors surrounding the school-to-prison pipeline standpoint, specifically regarding race, ethnicity and cultural differences. Educational systems historically have always favored privileged groups, which include (but are not limited to): white, male, upper-class, Christian, able-bodied, Americans. This leaves marginalized groups to have fewer opportunities and a higher chance of being funneled into this national trend. Some of the detrimental impacts can follow an individual person for the rest of their lives, lessening their chances of success both academically and professionally. This can also include significantly lowered self-esteem, depression, and/or anxiety, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. Institutionalized racism is also a key factor in the school-to-prison-pipeline, which can further these negative psychological impacts.
Zero-tolerance policies in the education system are the discipline guidelines that mandate each student having the same, predetermined consequences for acting out, by deciding beforehand how the administration would react to any given infraction. These policies were adopted in hopes to reduce crime within the education system and set an example for future generations of students. These predetermined consequences are often viewed as harsh, as they do not take case-by-case instances into consideration. They also often criminalize students, particularly students of color and other minority groups, as they are viewed to be particularly vulnerable when facing punishment for minor infractions. This leads to minority students being disproportionately impacted. Black students are nearly four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Procedures following the integration of zero-tolerance policies can include suspension or expulsion. The education system’s duty is to make students’ safety and wellbeing their top priority, which is essential for an individual’s academic and overall success. However, zero-tolerance policies assume that removing students who engage in disruptive behavior will deter others from disruption. This goal is often not accomplished and may actually cause a divide that will eventually make schools more unsafe. Furthermore, these policies push students out of the classroom after being criminalized, which later leads to incarceration. Once a student has such crucial marks on their record, it can be increasingly difficult for them to obtain jobs, access other educational opportunities, or experience feelings of sympathy from the outside world. The impact of these actions can be destructive to the students who have been faced with them and can lead to future behavioral issues.
In March 2019, Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) held the Mass Incarceration Symposium, where we were able to collectively shed light and educate others on how severe and prevalent these injustices are. Jennifer Wilmot, a Ph.D. student in the Educational Leadership Program gave a powerful and insightful presentation and personal testimony focusing specifically on how girls of color are often criminalized within the education system. Her presentation focused on how harrowing institutionalized racism can be and how permanently it can impact an individual, while simultaneously empowering women of color to stand up for themselves and other women in the face of hatred.
Overall, zero-tolerance policies systematically promote the mistreatment of minority groups, particularly people of color and those with disabilities and promote the heinous school-to-prison-pipeline. These factors contribute to the toxicity of implicit bias and institutionalized racism in school, which is inherently negative for a student’s mental and emotional wellbeing. As a future educator, it is of utmost importance to me that all children have a chance to perform to the best of their abilities, whether it be continuing on to higher education later on in life, or pursuing their talents elsewhere. All infringements should be taken individually so that every child has a chance to defend themselves and have their voices heard. More than this, it gives all students of color and those with disabilities a better chance to avoid the school-to-prison pipeline. Action can be made from with the education system itself, from the administration keeping an open conversation, to the students who can continue to speak up about these injustices. While I do strongly believe in being patient, understanding, and compassionate, I want to also make clear that prejudice of any sort will not be tolerated. I want to be honest and open with my students, as well as providing an environment where they feel comfortable to ask questions that may feel a little more uncomfortable to them. I want to make clear that this is a safe place to learn about tolerance and values, as well as encouraging students to embrace and celebrate their own culture. I want to educate students on the severe consequences behind making assumptions and how these can stop them from growing as individuals, as well as distracting them from the potential of another human being.
Ellee Rogers is a sophomore in the School of Education where she is pursuing a degree in secondary English education. In her free time, she enjoys reading and writing about current events and journaling.
The Association of African American Museums Conference, “Roots of Revolution: Reaching Back | Pushing Forward,” took place from August 6 – 10, 2019 at the Westin Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi. Attending this conference near my hometown in Mississippi gave me the opportunity to visit family and witness one of the most well-organized and insightful Black-centered events I’ve ever seen, complete with resourceful sessions, valuable information on preservation, effective “Speed Networking Mentorship” rounds, and, more importantly, free ice cream scoops from Ben and Jerry’s, who remains invested in social justice efforts. Although this conference showcased museum-related information, it attracted people from a wealth of specialties, creating a wide-range of innovative ideas about cultural preservation of African-derived cultures.
“Reaching Back|Pushing Forward” was a fitting focus for this conference because of its major attention to preservation and digital humanities. Adam J. Banks, a former KU Langston Hughes Visiting Professor, writes in “Looking Forward to Look Back: Technology Access and Transformation in African American Rhetoric,” the lives of Black people have been changed due to technology. This conference reflected this as it engaged participants in the various ways digital humanities offers for preserving Black history and changing the fabric of cultural knowledge for a more inclusive future.
The “pre-conference” began on Tuesday with a Digital Humanities Afro-Futurism Workshop, where Maryemma Graham, founding director of theProject on the History of Black Writing, and Bryan Carter, former president of the Association of African-American Museums, answered the question “What is a Digital Humanist?” Next, the Opening Plenary discussion on Octavia Butler’s Kindred took place. Featuring Julian Chambliss, Professor of History at Michigan State University, Ytasha Womack, award-winning Afrofuturist author, John Jennings, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside, moderated by Ayofemi Kirby, a communications professional from Harvard Extension School’s division of Museum Studies, this discussion was one of the most powerful moments of the conference. The conversation among these four scholars brilliantly connected the core of Afrofuturism to present communal practices of knowing and healing that centered racial identity and historical memory through an interactive fishbowl conversation. Womack made sure the audience understood the essence of Afrofuturism, and she admitted that even though the term was coined by white cultural critic Mark Dery in 1993, Black people are the ones taking up the Afrofuturist aesthetic and carrying it forward. Afrofuturism’s expression of African diasporic technoculture often employs ancient cultural mythos as a shaping mechanism for the visions of the future, especially expressed through science fiction, art, spirituality, and music. “The present is very interdimensional” Womack explained, “[Afrofuturism is] a healing practice as a communal healing from the limitations we’ve been indoctrinated with.”
Discussions around healing from trauma surfaced often in the Kindred discussion and was reiterated throughout the conference– thinking about preserving Black culture seems to carry the weight of traumatic experiences with it. In expressing the physical and spatial trauma of Dana, the protagonist in Kindred, Chambliss concluded “trauma is a part of the way African Americans negotiate the right past” in the midst of a dehumanizing situation. To this point, Jennings mentioned how the Black people were the technology of slavery, and the cotton gin was the “upgrade” that replaced them. “What does it mean for Black people to yield power over the technological space while not being used as technology?” Jennings inquired, “technology, systems, agency. Stories are technology, too, they’re how we make meaning of the world.” This conference centered on the healing process of Black people and the need to take control over their own stories in technological spaces.
The film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which chronicles the life of television icon Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers), reminded me that the “what” or the “subject” of art is equally as important as the “how” or the “crafting” of it. However, what gives Queen and Slim its power and beauty is the manner in which Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas seamlessly and eloquently blend the fantastical with the real and tangible to create an ode to Blackness that causes viewers to love and investigate Black culture and its struggle to exist and thrive. By fantastical, I do not mean elements of fantasy or magic realism, per se, but the notion that sometimes odd and improbable events occur that make reality baffling and wonderful. To this end, Queen and Slim is a tale that does not ask its viewers to choose between the “what is” and the “what could be” but to understand that the hell of the “what is” only remains dominant because the fantastic of “what could be” cannot be seen by enough of the very people in whom the fantastic is embedded.
From the moment the film begins until the moment it ends, it either asks or declares “how do Black people make so much beauty from so much bullshit?” I know that excrement is fertilizer, but Queen and Slim reaffirms that Black people continue the tradition of taking other folks scraps and making even better meals. The wretched of the earth don’t just survive; they thrive because regardless of what religion they have adopted or even having abandoned the notion of their being a god, there seems to be an abiding faith in the “great goodness of the universe” that is unshakable in the vast majority of African Americans, which is why Kalamu ya Salaam identifies that element as a core aspect of the Blues aesthetic in his book What Is Life?:Reclaiming the Black Blues Self. To that end, the journey on which the two protagonists find themselves is just that, a reclaiming of the Black blues self, which becomes evident in the places viewers see them hide and through the music—mostly soul, blues, and gospel—that drives, heals, and soothes them during their journey. Therefore, through the use of symbolism, the troping of literary history, and the use of the rhetorical question, Queen and Slim forces African Americans to see their potential while showing them that they are the only force keeping them from achieving their potential so that issues, such as police brutality, poverty, drug abuse, and violence are recognized as crises caused by white supremacy but are allowed to continue because of Black fear and self-hatred.
While the film is a journey narrative designed to parallel the struggle of slaves to free themselves from the existential web of slavery and find freedom, the moment that the protagonists stop running just long enough to dance signifies a neo-narrative moment in which the characters embrace the belief in something bigger than legal freedom. The dance scene signifies that life without living ain’t shit and that Black people will never be free until they learn to love themselves more than they fear and admire white people. It’s not just that they dance but that they stop to dance without fear of consequences. Moreover, their determination to live rather than just survive is strengthened as they realize they are housed in a cocoon of Blackness that will protect them from outsiders. Similarly, the riding of the horse symbolizes that people spend too much time making plans for tomorrow while missing the beauty and power of the current moment. This is especially true of folks who spend so much time calculating and trying to survive the present that they never enjoy life. Thus, Queen and Slim is a love story as a love letter to Black people that asks them to re-recognize the humanity and intellect in themselves.The re-recognition is highlighted as viewers are taken on a reverse exodus, something that I attempted to chronicle in my collection of short stories, finding the protagonists making their way from the North to and across the South, paralleling the reverse exodus of the tens of thousands of Black folks who returned to the South during the late 80s and early 90s after finally realizing what Richard Wright told them years earlier in the last section of Black Boy—that the North is not Negro heaven.
While adhering to Native Son’s “Fear,” “Flight,” and “Fate” theme, Queen and Slim does not do so mindlessly.It highlights Black humanity by making sure to provide varying shades and degrees of ideology reflected in Black folk who respond differently to their existential hell. The mechanic who helps the protagonists symbolizes the diversity of Black folks as he firmly disagrees with their actions; yet, unlike so many who allow their fear to overcome them, the mechanic helps them because he loves and believes in his Blackness and the Blackness of the son he is raising. But, being willing to extend Wright’s theme as far as possible, Waithe and Matsoukas show viewers exactly how Bigger is born when the mechanic’s son becomes impregnated with enough hatred to kill a police officer. The message is powerful because the young man who becomes filled with enough rage to kill is the fruit from Christian roots that have been so rotted and mangled from being saturated/polluted with the water of white supremacy that only spoiled fruit can be produced from that tree. Yet, in the same manner as Wright, Waithe and Matsoukas show that the harboring of hate, more times than not, functions to destroy the people who attempt to obtain revenge more than it impacts the people who actually inflicted the original pain. This is seen in the mechanic’s son killing a black officer who is only trying to help him in the same way that Bigger kills Bessie who only wants to love Bigger. Hatred is not just blind; it has no purpose or direction other than to destroy any and all that it can destroy. Ironically, while the two protagonists have more “agency” than Bigger, they are just as helpless as Bigger in their ability to protect themselves from the web of white supremacy. This is ironic because the chief criticism of Native Son by Black intellectuals was and continues to be that Wright created a flat, one-dimensional caricature who is unable to control his circumstances, which reflects poorly on the mass of African Americans. Now, with the deaths of so many Black people captured on video, it seems that Wright is more right about the lack of agency that African Americans have than his critics. Wright could see eighty years ago what most could only see after the invention of camcorders and cell phones—that most people have no idea what agency really is and that most of those who do know are usually too cowardly to use it.
One aspect of Queen and Slim’s power comes from having one foot in the present with one foot in the past.The protagonists hiding from police between floorboards tropes Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, when Jacobs details hiding in the attic, where she becomes physically debilitated by being confined to the tiny space, in which she can neither sit nor stand and with her only pleasure being able to watch her children through a tiny peephole.This moment highlights what Black people have endured just to begin to liberate themselves and merely survive while illustrating the strength, determination, and willpower it will take to become finally liberated. Next, the Black police officer allowing the protagonists to escape will be considered “fantastical” but tropes Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door by indicating that, once again, Black folks must learn to love themselves more than they love being accepted and praised by whites if they ever hope to achieve freedom/sovereignty.
Waithe and Matsoukas are smart enough not to ask if Black police officers should be allowing Black criminals to escape justice. Rather, they are asking if Black people who have been given power also have the intellect and the courage to correct the wrongs of a system when they have the opportunity to do so. The release of the deceased officer’s body cam makes it clear that the protagonists acted in self-defense, even if white supremacy will keep most white people from realizing that when they view the footage. Next, Waithe and Matsoukas provide just enough insight (through showing and not telling) that viewers understand the mentality of a young, African-American officer working in a mostly white world in which white supremacy is so normal that white officers do not perceive their treatment of a fellow Black officer as demeaning. In this context, the Black officer allowing them to escape seems less “fantastical” and more an artistic commentary on one’s ability to make right a wrong when one has the opportunity, even at the risk of losing one’s job and status. The real problem is that far too many Black people have shown that their job and status are much more important than correcting an unjust system. Thus, what makes the officer’s actions “fantastical” is not that he does the “right” thing but that so many have shown that they will not do the “right” thing at the risk of their own personal sacrifice. The fear, depravity, and apathy into which so many have fallen make doing the right them seem “fantastical.” Of course, in Waithe and Matsoukas’ commentary, fear, depravity, and apathy are shown in the character who takes the payoff to “turn in” the protagonists, proving the film’s point that the only thing keeping Black people from their full potential is themselves. Again, the irony is that the character who is willing to harm his own people for self-gain is not viewed as “fantastical” while the character who risks personal sacrifice to do the right thing is conceived as “fantastical,” which tells viewers everything they must know about the current condition of the African-American mind that so readily harms its own in a myriad of ways.
The core of the film is the potential power of Black people that can only be harnessed through connectivity, and NAACP President Derrick Johnson, along with so much of Black history, has shown that the power of Black connectivity is not a “fantastical” thing. Johnson was the President of the Mississippi NAACP when Hurricane Katrina occurred. Quick to action, the Red Cross established aid centers across the southern coast from Louisiana to Alabama. However, the vast majority of those centers were in white communities, leaving the vast majority of Black folks impacted by Katrina unserved. Johnson, understanding that most of the NAACP local branches are connected or rooted in Black churches throughout urban and rural communities, began organizing and mobilizing trucks with food, water, toiletries, and clothing to be dispersed to Black churches, which became makeshift aid centers. Beginning in Jackson and North Mississippi, Johnson eventually organized and mobilized trucks from all across America, using only NAACP branches, mostly located in churches. So, when Johnson states on The Breakfast Club that the NAACP “is as relevant as Black folks make it,” he is not just speaking rhetoric. He is speaking to a reality that goes as far back as slavery through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, and the apex of the Civil Rights Movement in which most of the groundwork was done by Black folks from those southern states. This is the historical reality in which Queen and Slim is planted. So, again, the issue is not that Black connectivity and Black unity are “fantastical.” It should not be deemed “fantastical” that a community of Black folks would decide for themselves whether or not their own people are valuable. Yet, the film does force viewers to address when will African people, especially Africans in America, start to realize that self-hatred is real and is the major hurdle prohibiting them from becoming self-sufficient and independent people? When the bartender tells the male protagonist, “don’t worry; y’all are safe here,” is that “fantastical” or just an example of Black self-love that has not been seen for so long that it is almost impossible for most African Americans to recognize it as reality?
Like all epics, Queen and Slim ends with a two-part ideological question. But, from the beginning, it is founded upon and layered with questions, starting with the two protagonists on a first date bantering with questions to them continuing with questions on the drive home, more questions arise between them and the white officer when they are stopped by the officer, still even more questions about their response after the officer has been shot, and a slew of even more questions arise from the community watching their journey unfold on television and through social media. I’m guessing that over sixty percent of the dialogue consists of questions, with the majority of them being rhetorical, meaning metaphoric. So, toward the end of the film when the male protagonist tells his female counterpart about the time when he was a child and asked several family members from where do babies come, the viewer is expecting a proclamation on the deeply spiritual nature of life and its meaning. But, he explains that he decided that all of the answers of his family members are wrong and asserts that “babies come from fucking.” On its face, the assertion seems to reject completely the notion of a metaphysical and metaphorical meaning of life. But, viewers must remember that he is the one who initially prays before his meal and believes in the great goodness of the universe. He is the one who questions the validity of fleeing to freedom and leaving their family, something that Vyry from Margaret Walker Alexander’s Jubilee is unable to do because, for both Vyry and the film’s male protagonist, family is everything and the only thing of value in this life. With that context, his assertion that “babies come from fucking” is a commentary on how people understand and navigate what Plato would deem their tangible reality in a manner in which Aristotle would deem it to be meaningful or purposeful to them. Even if one believes that babies are a “gift from God,” babies do come from fucking or from having sex, if y’all prefer. What is metaphysical and metaphoric is what people decide to do with the “gift” or the “lives” of the babies once they arrive. Similarly, are the two protagonists a “gift from God” for the Black community, or are they just two people whose existences have been birth onto the radar of the Black community’s socio-political consciousness and whose fates have been decided by a fucked-up situation? These two have been fornicated or fucked, so to speak, into their current circumstance.
Clearly, like the manner in which people assign meaning and purpose to babies, these two have been birthed into a situation with which they had no choice or control and are forced to learn and navigate the experience as they go, often “making up the rules” as they go, while others (the Black and white communities) pontificate over their meaning/significance. Still, having something in which to believe, which seems to be the point of the story about how babies are produced, is the only thing that keeps people from succumbing to their hellish existence. Even more, having something in which to believe is the only thing that can motivate humans to the selflessness needed to change the hell in which they exist. Where Nietzsche asserts that “the problem isn’t that people believe in the existence of a god but that they are too afraid not to believe in a god,” Waithe and Matsoukas counter with the notion that, often, belief in something larger than oneself is the only thing that can keep humans sane and humane, giving them the courage to continue living when everything else tells them that they should die.
This leads to the second part of the question: is dying for freedom better than living as a slave as neither of the protagonists survives their ordeal? This question evokes the Byron Allen v. Comcast case that is currently before the Supreme Court. Many people much smarter than me have told me that Allen should have never filed the lawsuit and that his greed will eventually cause all Black people to lose their ability to be protected against discrimination. (And, to be clear, I readily admit that I don’t know nearly as much about the law as those professionals with whom I have conferred.) Yet, all the people who have told me that Allen is doing a disservice to African Americans have not been able to answer one question for me. Are African Americans really free if, anytime they act to obtain legal protection against discrimination, white individuals and corporations can threaten to take those Civil Rights if they don’t just accept whatever injustice whites desire African Americans to have? This time it’s Byron Allen. Who will it be next time? If the facts of Allen’s case did not merit a lawsuit, why was he able to win at least once? And, now, Comcast is not arguing before the Supreme Court on the merits or facts of Allen’s original lawsuit. Comcast is asking the Supreme Court to change how discrimination can be defined and litigated to make it almost impossible for anyone to be protected against discrimination. If all it took was Allen filing a discrimination lawsuit for black people to lose their Civil Rights, did African Americans ever have Civil Rights? I’m sure that I don’t know all of the aspects/sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but I’m pretty sure that freedom is not me begging or hoping white people will be nice to me.
In several interviews, Waithe stated that one of her demands for making the film was that she would “not take notes from white people.” Notes are what studios provide to writers and directors when the studio wants something changed. Often, those changes are meant to make the film more appealing to a “larger,” meaning “white,” audience. Because Waithe was in a position to make the film on her own, she was able to dictate the terms of making the film, even if it would be bankrolled by a studio. I’m not saying that this makes Waithe free as the only reason the studio is willing to bankroll the film is because the studio will own the rights to the film and receive the lion’s share of the profits. Still, Waithe being unwilling to take notes from a white person to preserve the integrity of her work speaks to what one is willing to do or sacrifice to live how one wants to live.
Furthermore, as indicated by the end of the film, what are Black people willing to do if they are unable to live freely? As Minister Louis Farrakhan once stated, “As long as Black people love life more than they love freedom, they will always be slaves.” As such, the protagonists of Queen and Slim show that there is no such thing as being kinda free and that an unfree life is no life at all. To that end, African Americans remain in Plato’s cave thinking that the illusion dancing on their walls is real freedom. Yet, what may be even sadder is that there are so many African Americans who know that we are not free, who have the power to help us get free, but are held immobile by fear and greed. I don’t know if I’m ready to die for my freedom, but I have long since stopped pretending that I am happy or content with this illusion of freedom. Queen and Slim presents an artistic rendering of the possibility of what can happen when enough Black folks become “sick and tired of being sick and tired” while remaining grounded in the reality that Black fear and self-hatred are as powerful as white supremacy.
C. Liegh McInnis is an instructor of English at Jackson State University, the former editor/publisher of Black Magnolias Literary Journal, and the author of eight books, including four collections of poetry, one collection of short fiction (Scripts: Sketches and Tales of Urban Mississippi), one work of literary criticism (The Lyrics of Prince: A Literary Look), one co-authored work, Brother Hollis: The Sankofa of a Movement Man, which discusses the life of a legendary Mississippi Civil Rights icon, and the former First Runner-Up of the Amiri Baraka/Sonia Sanchez Poetry Award. Additionally, he has been published in various magazines, newspapers, and anthologies.
I need to visit those who weigh heavily on my mind. As a result of the progression of years and the busyness of daily living, I don’t always get the opportunity to reach out. For the past two or three months, however, I have constantly considered stopping by my former poetry professor’s house, which is only about eight minutes from mine. My former professor Gerald W. Barrax, one of my mentors, is always teaching me. In fact, I return to his poetry books from time to time, because they unfold with courage, grace, hope, intelligence, music, and power. In the waxing and waning of time, of course, I know it doesn’t slow for me or anybody else. After all, a person has limited time.
On the ninth day of December, as I write these few paragraphs, I listen to the local news. It is not unusual to listen to the news, except I don’t usually know anyone on it. This cold, foggy morning, I hear my former poetry professor’s name Gerald Barrax. I am able to sit up straighter. I can’t believe this sad news that he got hit by a car. I can’t believe he died. I can’t believe I haven’t talked to him in a couple of years since the time I saw him with his daughter, shopping for groceries. I remember him introducing me to her. I remember her telling me that she was taking good care of him. Later on the evening news, I hear that he was in the crosswalk. I think he was out walking.
Moreover, I remember talking to another one of my mentors Dr. Jerry W. Ward, Jr. and telling him that my former poetry professor Gerald Barrax had been on my mind. I also remember telling him that I have been considering visiting him and that I look toward his street whenever I pass it. For some reason, I didn’t stop to visit him. Maybe it’s because a friend keeps telling me that you don’t stop by someone’s house nowadays as we did decades ago. I wonder what has all of the technology done to us. I wonder about not visiting, not calling on the phone as much, and not handwriting letters. I think it might be the pacing of society that pushes me and others onward to task after task rather than spending more time with others.
And yet, I know I live only 8 minutes from my former poetry professor. But I would simply look in the direction of his street whenever I passed it. I recall how he pointed out good details in poems in class. I also recall how each of us students had fifteen minutes for the reading and workshopping of our poems. How clearly I remember my Advanced Poetry Writing Class in the Spring 1989 semester and my Graduate Poetry Workshop with Professor Barrax and the time clock he used, because the time was a major factor. I can easily recall how insightful the critiques were. In the Beginning Poetry Writing Class in the Fall 1988 Semester, however, I can still see how my classmates were as eager as I was to write poetry and receive his feedback. Although these memories are as fresh as just baked muffins, I marvel at Professor Barrax’s poetry books and share literary news about his work with the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective and the Washington Street Writers Group. By the way, my Graduate Poetry Workshop classmate Bruce Lader and I are co-founders of the Washington Street Writers Group. Because we seem to want to continue workshopping our poems after the semester class, the Washington Street Writers Group would blossom. Later in an email from the Washington Street Writers Group members about Professor Barrax’s Friday funeral, I read Bruce Lader’s message, informing us that it was Professor Barrax’s idea for us to start the writers’ group. Yes, I remember enrolling in those English classes at North Carolina State University.
Moreover, I think many people already know that I got the idea to start the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective while taking Professor Barrax’s Advanced Poetry Writing Class. I would inform my classmate Janice W. Hodges about my plans to start a writers group, The Collective or CAAWC, because she and I had to explain cultural references in our poems to other classmates, though there were good poets in the class. I think it takes time away from one’s critique of his or her poetry by explaining cultural references and/or historical references.
When I ride on Hillsborough Street past North Carolina State University, I still look toward Tompkins Hall where the English classes and poetry readings are held. I still remember the poets whom Professor Barrax invited to teach workshops to some of us: Gwendolyn Brooks and Miller Williams.
In regards to the fleeting time, it is now nighttime. I am driving home from K & W Cafeteria. Although I already know Professor’s daughter who several years ago taught at the University of Mount Olive, where I teach, I do not stop by his house. I want to pay my respects to his family, but he just died over the weekend, December 7, 2019. When I pass his street, again I turn toward it, knowing my late daughter’s elementary school is near there. Once again, I realize that it is the twenty-first century; so I wonder about stopping by his house without calling first. I plan to re-read a poem that I wrote more than two decades ago, depicting one of Professor Barrax’s poetry readings. I also plan to re-read his poetry books and continuing teaching them in my workshops.
In these time when I get to live, learn, and love, I realize the importance of not simply keeping to myself. I call my mentors Dr. Jerry W. Ward, Jr. and Eugene B. Redmond. I also call my friends Bridgette A. Lacy, Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin, and Gina Streaty. Each one of us is a writer. Like my daily writing, I will not delay my greetings. Lastly, I wanted to attend my former Poetry Professor’s funeral on Friday, but I was scheduled to administer final exams on Thursday and Friday. Maybe these words will bring solace somehow.
Lenard D. Moore is an Associate Professor of English and Poet-in-Residence at the University of Mount Olive. Moore is also the director of the UMO Literary Festival.
Below is a response to Furious Flower’s 25th Anniversary Celebration from former and current HBW staff members and affiliates:
Portia Owusu, Ph.D., Visiting Assistant Professor / ACES Fellow of English in the Department of English at Texas A&M University: The second day of the celebration demonstrated the community aspect of the Furious Flower Center since activities involved both invited guests and the general public. The day begins with a tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The Museum is incredibly impressive in all aspects, but overwhelming because of the sheer wealth of material and information it presents to visitors on African-American cultural history. However, beginning the second day of the program at the NMAAHC was appropriate because it provided contexts for the conversations between the poets and audience who gathered later in the afternoon at the Oprah Winfrey Theatre.
The first panel, with Kwame Dawes, Evie Shockley, Meta DuEwa Jones, John Bracey, and Nagueyalti Warren, focused on critical perspectives and directions in contemporary African-American poetry. Shockley read an essay that discusses the different ways that African-American poetry over the years have experimented with style. This was followed by John Bracey, a historian, who talked about the place of history in African-American poetry and then read from his work. The day culminated with over twenty poets, including Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez, who read their works in front of an audience of poets and readers at the Heritage Hall of the NMAAHC. After this was a reception that brought the poets and the audience together. In an informal setting, poets interacted with readers, signed books and answered questions. Observing these interactions, the comfort and ease that gelled conversations between some of the world’s best- known poets and their readers, affirmed the importance of the work that the Furious Flower Center does. It illustrated that Black poetry is living and active; that it exists to speak to the experience of communities. It also stressed the importance of supporting organizations like Furious Flower’s who take the business of Black poetry seriously and work tirelessly to promote it.
Mona Ahmed, B.A., B.S., current Office Manager for the Project on the History of Black Writing and alumna of the University of Kansas: The second component of the anniversary celebration consisted of a fun-filled day at the NMAAHC. The itinerary included a tour of the museum, workshops, two panels, and poetry readings. It was a surreal experience to tour the museum and explore the exhibits. The NMAAHC did an amazing job curating many exhibits from the Middle Passage to the Black Lives Matters Movement.
I was in awe to see Harriet Tubman’s shawl and Nat Turner’s bible. Growing up, my secondary education curriculum briefly touched on Black history. Even with the bare knowledge I was taught, I never got the opportunity to interact so closely with artifacts from those particular eras. Furious Flower could not have chosen a better place to host their anniversary celebration. For someone who was not alive during the Black Arts of the movement,
it was great to tour the Black Arts Movement exhibit and later listen to poets like Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez, who were contributors to the movement. To be able to come together and celebrate Black poetry at the NMAAHC with poets from and after the Black Arts Movement and to see how each generation of poets are shaping the narrative of Black poetry in their own lens was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
My favorite part of the celebration was listening to theEstwatini poets read their work. Furious Flower had met the five poets in 2018 when they traveled to Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) to participate in workshops held by the Arts Envoy Program. Each poet brought in a different perspective from love, African culture, spirituality, and activism. I am grateful to have not only attended the Furious Flower 25th celebration but to have been able to meet many poets and see the advancement and the future of Black poetry.
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:The next day was spent at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where you traveled back through time working your way from the slavery era to current times. Reliving history and thinking about what has happened throughout time to so many Black men, women, and children, as well as the continuance of injustices in current times. This was definitely a somber but important museum to experience. After leaving the exhibitions, I was pulled into a room with James Madison University students and was asked to share my thoughts on Furious Flower, who I was excited to see most, and how I had learned about Furious Flower. I shared with the students that I learned many of the poets and authors discussed over the weekend through my time at HBW, working with the novels, magazines, anthologies, and at times many professors and poets that were in attendance at the gala.
I finally wrapped up my time listening to panelists that included Evie Shockley, Kwame Dawes, Meta DuEwa Jones, John Bracey, and Nagueyalti Warren that further talked about their perspectives and shared words of wisdom as well as some of their own pieces. Although I only was able to experience a portion of the events that occurred over the weekend, I was truly amazed at being able to be exposed to such powerful artists and their work during the 25th anniversary.
Portia: In school, I feared poetry. I found it inaccessible: the language too difficult and the subject matter too abstract for my liking. Because of this, I steered away from the genre, believing that only selected few knew how to write, read and appreciate it. Things changed, however, when I was introduced to African-American poetry as an undergraduate. Encountering Langston Hughes’ pride of heritage in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”; the specters of history in Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” and the sea of the wisdom in the works of Maya Angelou, I began to enjoy poetry. These works, among others, spoke to me in ways that other texts did not and through them, I realized what I had been missing all those years was exposure to texts that reflected my experiences. The Furious Flower Center, an academic program and organization, recognizes this and for twenty-five years, has worked hard to promote African-American poetry, connecting readers with writers, preserving African-American literary heritage and advancing a new generation of poets.
On October 24th, 2019, Oscar award-winning director, screenwriter, and KU Film and Media Studies Professor, Kevin Willmott, delivered the 2019 Bill Tuttle Distinguished Lecture in American Studies. Established in 2008, the Tuttle Lecture honors the teaching legacy of Professor Emeritus Bill Tuttle, who taught in KU’s American Studies department, and focuses on his main research interests which include African-American history and culture and American politics. Willmott’s lecture largely addressed the recurring cycle of racial hatred throughout the history of the United States and how this has influenced the film industry. For decades, the American film industry has strictly regulated the amount and type of Black subject matter released through Hollywood production companies, thereby policing the Black stories told on-screen.
During the early 2000s, Willmott started receiving jobs as a screenwriter in Hollywood and remembered production companies’ initial shock when realizing he was African American. Hollywood wasn’t accustomed to working with Black screenwriters and directors at the time, which shows how the American film industry has been dominated by whiteness. While this racial disparity continues to improve over time, there is still more improvement to be made. Willmott revealed that out of his frustration with Hollywood monitoring the number of on-screen Black storylines, and more specifically their resistance toward historical Black stories that accurately depict the formation of America, he created the film C.S.A: The Confederate States of America (2004). Before creating C.S.A., Willmott initially wondered, “What if the Confederacy had won, and what if Abraham Lincoln had been locked up and arrested… What would that America look like?” While C.S.A. serves as a speculative narrative depicting how our society would function if it were still under the rule of the Confederacy, Willmott believes that his film operates as a reflection of the United States’ current sociocultural climate and the resurgence of racial hatred occurring in our society.
“The country goes back and forth. There’s times when we have moments of the U.S.A., and then you have years, months, or sections of time that are the C.S.A, and the country, in my opinion, has not decided what country it really wants to be… Hate is resurging because we have a klansman [Donald Trump] in the White House.”
Black film, according to Willmott, is important to Black cultural production because it gives us a chance to reflect and learn about ourselves, our history, and what it means to be Black. Anti-blackness persists and appears in many forms throughout American society, and Black cinematic productions like Spike Lee and Willmott’s BlackKklansman, seek to interrogate and reveal how instances of racism that the American popular imagination has situated in the past is still alive in the present. Willmott argues that the United States consistently moves back and forth between being the United States of America (U.S.A) and the Confederate States of America (C.S.A). He believes that “The country goes back and forth. There’s times when we have moments of the U.S.A., and then you have years, months, or sections of time that are the C.S.A, and the country, in my opinion, has not decided what country it really wants to be… Hate is resurging because we have a klansman [Donald Trump] in the White House.” President Trump gained widespread American support with the help of the “C.S.A,” leading him to be elected into office in 2016. In other words, Trump gained the approval of many white Americans who supported the dehumanization, policing, and detainment of immigrants in America’s name. Hate is not new to America, and Willmott posed an important question, “Are we going to let the C.S.A win, or not?” American white supremacists, many of whom are elected legislative officials, continue to take advantage of white people not knowing the true history about the shaping of our democracy, but in Willmott’s opinion, we must stop downplaying the reality of our country’s current social condition, and as a country, we have a lot of work to do.
Ultimately, Willmott believes white people must be willing to listen and learn about our country’s history with racism and anti-blackness, and Black people must be willing to show patience towards individuals who have been shielded from the reality of America’s history because of their whiteness.
Jade Harrison is a first-year Ph.D. student in African-American literature at the University of Kansas. She’s also a research assistant for 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.