Week 1 – Hurston’s Canon: Into the Mysteries of Zora Neale Hurston

[By: Christopher Peace]

The following is the first installment of a three-part series recapping the events of The Project on the History of Black Writing’s NEH Summer Institute “Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present, and Future”.

Logo for Hurston on the Horizon

Zora Neale Hurston’s literary and anthropological influence remains constantly relevant in today’s scholarship, and it continues to invite multiple audiences into the depths of her mysteries. The Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) in collaboration with the Association for the Preservation of the Eatonville Community (P.E.C.) held the virtual National Endowment for the Humanities Institute “Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present, and Future” July 11-30, 2021. For three weeks, twenty-five Summer Scholars took a deep, expansive dive into Hurston’s popular and lesser-known works. While the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God has long had widespread popularity within the African American literary canon, Hurston wrote at least seven short stories, four novels, an ethnography, and ten plays that remained unpublished during her lifetime yet existed among additional materials archived in the Library of Congress. Hurston’s boundary crossing engagement with various publics, language, new technologies, gender, race, culture, and the South became a blueprint for intersectionality as she appealed to educated society and “the folk” alike. Through synchronous and asynchronous meetings, the Institute connected Hurston’s critical approaches to today’s conversations in the humanities by asking 3 major questions: (1) What are the evolving and developing patterns in Hurston studies? (2) How can new technologies innovate pedagogies and enhance our understanding of Hurston’s canon? (3) Where does Hurston’s legacy fit into larger discussions about rethinking the past, present, and future meaning of African American literature and culture studies? By exploring answers to these questions, the Institute inspired participants, faculty, and staff to expand their reach into Hurston studies.

The first week of the Institute was titled “Hurston’s Canon,” where the focus included the Harlem Renaissance, Eatonville, and emerging digital methodologies. We opened with a tribute to Dr. Cheryl Wall who was originally scheduled to be a member of the Institute faculty before her passing in 2020. Her spirit and scholarship remained with us throughout our conversations; Wall’s chapter “On Art and Such: Debating Aesthetics during the Harlem Renaissance” from her book On Freedom and the Will to Adorn: The Art of the African American Essay added rich discussions to our interdisciplinary focus on Hurston’s texts. Dr. Deborah McDowell referenced Dr. Wall’s work when explaining how one should read Hurston. “Hurston is invested in keeping things shaken up,” Dr. McDowell pointed out. “As Cheryl Wall mentions, one should read Hurston against the grain…we read Hurston’s lines along with other lines in the interests of complexity.”

Thinking of Hurston’s intersectionality and complex engagement with multiple audiences, Summer Scholars and participating faculty discussed ways in which her work could be more accessible today. Dr. Carmaletta Williams, the executive director of the Black Archives of Mid-America and appointed a daughter of Hurston, suggested that the latter’s “archives have to be accessible. We have to make it that people want to read [them]; public scholarship is one of the ways that we do that. We don’t just make scholarly tombs; we have to make them accessible— that’s actually the focus of my writings.” In addition to Williams, N.Y. Nathiri, John Wharton Lowe, and Maryemma Graham were featured in “The Living Legacies” public panel, which focused on cultural preservation, oral histories, archival access, and literary recovery. Dr. Graham discussed how Hurston’s works are constantly being reimagined through the people who knew her. For example, Dr. Graham told stories about her own aunt’s interaction with Hurston and about American poet and writer Margaret Walker including Hurston in her journals. Dr. Lowe, a literary historian and professor of English at the University of Georgia, drew on his text Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston’s Cosmic Comedy to highlight his working history with Hurston’s influence on the African American humor genre.

Mural Wall in Eatonville, Florida.

Throughout the week, the faculty homed in on Hurston’s childhood town, Eatonville, Florida, while also highlighting Hurston’s birthplace in Notasulga, Alabama and her move to Harlem, New York, where she took part in the Harlem Renaissance. “Hurston and Eatonville are two sides of the same hand,” stated Dr. N.Y. Nathiri, the executive director of P.E.C., “She’s an environmental activist.” Dr. Nathiri heads the ZORA! Festival of the Arts and Humanities, which aims to make Eatonville an internationally recognized cultural tourism destination through Hurston’s legacy. Dr. Williams reiterated Dr. Nathiri’s point about Eatonville as an active influence on Hurston’s identity and scholarship: “Hurston [goes] back to Florida, to home where the land will feed [her], and it’s the place where she can decompress. So, nature is also the space where she can work herself out.”

At the end of the week, Dr. Julian Chambliss saw Eatonville as representing “the Black speculative epistemology…crucial to understanding Hurston’s importance to our current moment.” Chambliss situated Zora Neale Hurston’s work as both an example of the counterstorying practice project central to Afrofuturism and a model to rethink the nature of Black cultural knowledge. Along with the ways Afrofuturism employs race and technology, Summer Scholars engaged with Dr. Sylvia Fernández and HBW’s Black Book Interactive Project Manager Jade Harrison to learn about digital humanities methodology to not only preserve Hurston but situate her in the twenty-first century.

From the novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine to the autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, the first week revisited Hurston’s classic works while also putting those works in new scholarly contexts. Although rigorous and informative, the Institute also aimed to create a community of support among the Summer Scholars. Outside of the 3 to 4 hours of synchronous meetings each weekday, participants met online for more relaxed conversations. To address Zoom fatigue, Dr. Giselle Anatol led a breathing meditation toward the end of the week to recenter participants during the sessions. Leaning into the mystery of Hurston, and encouraging our ongoing study of her boldness as well as her subtleties, Dr. Glenda Carpio, Harvard University professor, succinctly stated, “‘If you can’t be free, be a mystery.’ This wonderful phrase is very Hurston; she made herself a mystery. She didn’t want to be typecast in any way. The inspiration was to be a mystery.”  Hurston’s mysteries entice further dives into her works and invites contemporary methodologies into the complexities of her timeless influence.

To sustain the Institute’s intellectual engagement, three post-Institute events will further explore Hurston’s scholarship. Editor and journalist Valerie Boyd, New York Times best-selling author Tayari Jones, and University of Memphis philosophy professor Lindsey Stewart will discuss the Harlem Renaissance writer’s life and legacy in this webinar series, which is open to the public and begins this Friday, October 1. Please register to join us as we continue the conversation.

 

Christopher Peace has a B.A. in Writing from Mississippi College and an M.A. in Literature from Jackson State University.  He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, pursuing a degree in rhetoric and composition. Some of his academic interests include Zora Neale Hurston, spatial rhetorics, African American religious practices, and ecocomposition. At HBW, he has worked with the Black Book Interactive Project and Black Literary Suite teams; he also served as a graduate intern for the ZORA! Festival of the Arts and Humanities in Eatonville, Florida.

The Black Book Interactive Project

[ By: Jade Harrison ]

The Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP) is the digital component of the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW). A collaborative research model, it increases the number of Black-authored texts available for scholarly engagement and teaching.  Founded in 2010, based on a pilot project created by then graduate student Kenton Rambsy, now a professor at the University of Texas-Arlington, BBIP has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). Our collection features over 4,000 Black-authored texts and descriptive metadata, making it the largest digital archive of its kind. Project Manager, Jade Harrison wrote an update on the work BBIP has done this past year.

During Fall 2020, the BBIP team completed a large-scale inventory assessment of the BBIP corpus, which contained 3,159 fiction titles. The team also cleaned and organized BBIP’s vast collection of titles according to original publication title, original publication date, publication decade, author gender, author race, retrieval location, and status of the text. We have scanned 1,668 texts as PDF files, and successfully identified and confirmed 1,491 titles in the BBIP corpus awaiting digitization. One of the student digital assistants is Alejandro Rangel-Lopez.

Rangel-Lopez is a third-year Political Science and Public Administration undergraduate student.

“At BBIP, I serve as the resident “OCR expert” and aside from converting files, I train others who come along to work with me on the process. This year, my colleagues Grace, Andi and I have made great progress on processing all of our existing .pdf files into .html files. In fact, we’ve processed roughly 300+ files this summer alone. Those files we have converted should be ready to be uploaded to the Philologic interface developed by the Textual Optics Lab at the University of Chicago. For this upcoming academic year, I’m excited to continue working on OCR and reintegrating the scanning process into our workflow again, which we’ve had to do remotely due to the pandemic,” said Rangel-Lopez, BBIP Collections Assistant.

In October 2020, HBW formed a collaboration with the HathiTrust Research Center. BBIP subsequently became a flagship project for “Scholar-Curated Worksets for Re-use, Dissemination, and Analysis (SCWAReD),” funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  SCWAReD aims to create and foster scholar-curated worksets that highlight specific topics, disciplines and themes related to historically under-resourced and marginalized communities. The HBW corpus is currently the largest known digital collection of African American fiction in existence, which underscores the importance of the partnership with HTRC, the largest digital library in existence.

Brendan Williams-Childs is a second-year MFA student with an emphasis on fiction.

“Working with SCWAReD is a learning process in a good way. From a grad student perspective, it’s opened up a lens on how complicated collaborations can be but has also underscored that the sorts of projects the teams are all working on that couldn’t be done without those partnerships,” said Williams-Childs, BBIP Collections Assistant and HBW’s SCWAReD Project GRA.

In March 2021, BBIP Project Manager, Jade Harrison, along with two graduate student Collection Assistants, Brendan Williams-Childs and Ashley Simmons, created a revised metadata schema with 21 categories that account for biographical, bibliographic, historical, and literary text-specific information about Black writers and their corresponding works of fiction regardless of canonical status. We have utilized this schema to guide our efforts in finding pertinent information about critically recognized and lesser-known Black writers and texts to build “The Black Fiction Dataset.” This dataset will serve as an accessible and sustainable digital collection of searchable information about the Black authors in our corpus and their published fiction since the 19th century.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how the worksets will look and what people will create based on their research! Jade and Ashley are both working on dissertations that should be able to utilize the results of the SCWAReD collaboration, which is great, “Williams-Childs noted.

Starting July 1, 2021, new funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities – Humanities Collections and Reference Resources division supports phase III of BBIP. The goal is to complete the digitization of 2,100 additional texts, further refinement and application of metadata, and the launch of two new cohorts of the BBIP Scholars Program (2022 and 2023). Learn more about the Black Book Interactive Project here.

Starting July 1, 2021, new funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities – Humanities Collections and Reference Resources division supports phase III of BBIP. The goal is to complete the digitization of 2,100 additional texts, further refinement and application of metadata, and the launch of two new cohorts of the BBIP Scholars Program (2022 and 2023). Learn more about the Black Book Interactive Project here.

 

Jade Harrison is a third-year doctoral student in English studying late-twentieth century African American women’s literature and compliments her literary studies in the Digital Humanities. She is currently a member of the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) and serves as Project Manager for the Black Book Interactive Project (BBIP) at the University of Kansas.

An interview with DeAsia Paige, author of The College Diaries Pt. 2

[ By: Shawna Shipley-Gates ]

In Part II DeAsia Paige and Shawna Shipley-Gates hold a conversation on the impact Black feminism has had on each of their lives and its continued use their everyday experiences. Paige also discusses her current work and plans for the future.

*This conversation has been edited for length and clarity*

The College Diaries (2020)

Shipley-Gates: I’m glad you brought up feminism because I found it very interesting. I personally have a background in sexual health, so my focus is on pleasure and sexual health among Black women. I appreciated you saying that Black feminist scholars are the ones that gave you your first real sex education class. How important was it to demonstrate your commitment to Black feminist scholarship in the book?

Paige: It was a main priority for me because the book had some feminist undertones, and that’s who I am in general.  I knew that had to be in the book. If it wasn’t throughout the book, it had to be a small piece of it. You can’t really know me and understand my experiences and how I’m interpreting them, unless you know that most of my education, what I know today, and how I go through things in my life are because of reading bell hooks, Brittany Cooper and the like. So that was the priority for me.

When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost (1999)

Shipley-Gates: I think that was another piece too, you brought that academic aspect to the book, still making it accessible. Very Brittany Cooper-ish, right? She’s a community engaged scholar, where you were like, “I still want to introduce you all to Black feminism, if you haven’t heard of it before, and how I use it. That it’s accessible, and part of our everyday life, such as providing my first sexual education class.” I love talking about pleasure politics; my first introduction was Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. When you read these pieces, it resonates with your day to day life, which I saw in your book. Sometimes I think people are afraid to integrate academia with mainstream writing or work, period. So kudos to you for explaining it in a way that people can flow right with you.

You mentioned that you have an impactful relationship with music? I thought that was brilliant, that following Black musical artists provided the anthems or soundtracks for this particular time of my life. At what point in your life did you realize that you had such an impactful relationship with music? When did you realize that’s what helps you get through?

Paige: I have a church background and to me the best part of church is the praise and worship section. I grew up singing in the choir as well, so music has always been a way to feel something. In church music is used as a conduit to catch the Holy Ghost, as prayer breaks, they are a popular phenomenon within Black churches. For me, music has always been that way of connecting with some sort of power, feeling, or really anything, and that was really instilled in me from a young age. I went to a Christian school and the Christian church that I went to was affiliated with the Christian school. My mom was in church as well, so our church is in my DNA. I think that’s when I knew. It was always inside of me. As I grew up, I became more interested in secular music, because in the history of music in this country, secular music is derived from gospel music. It wasn’t like I had to shift gears when making that transition to listen to secular music. It was the same thing for me, just in a different format, a different language. But it’s always been in me, since before I can even remember really.

Shipley-Gates: That’s interesting because you said you relied on gospel music quite a bit.  Even when you were grappling with your relationship with church at the time, if nothing else, you can go back to gospel music. I sensed that could have been where it started, but I love to confirm that.

What do you have going on now, since you’ve graduated, since the book is out? What have you been working on?

Paige: Right now my job keeps me pretty busy. I am currently based in St. Louis where I write for the Belleville News Democrat. I cover Black communities in the Metro-East region. What I do is in partnership with Report for America, a national fellowship program for entry level journalists that connects them to newsrooms across the country. I received one of the fellowships and got placed there. Most of my time is dedicated to covering race issues and social issues in the Metro-East. I’m currently working on a story about how Black women and urban farmers are working together to provide food for their communities. It’s a lot of pressure because I am the only Black reporter in my newsroom, so there’s always this pressure of not only doing your job, right, but also trying to make sure that you’re covering your community in a way that they will really enjoy. That basically takes up all my time.

I do freelance music journalism, but I haven’t done that consistently because my job takes up a lot of my time. I did write this piece for Bitch Media about how Black women R&B artists are overlooked in this year’s Grammys. I like to write about the intersection of race, music, and culture. That’s something that I try to do on the side, but my main job takes all that away from me sometimes. I’m trying to get back into it because I really love writing about music.

Shipley-Gates: It’s funny that you mention Bitch Media.  I’ve actually realized since the holiday break, that I really enjoy writing myself. I just realized I like to write about culture and other things focused on pleasure. I just did a Bitch Media article a couple months ago on Heaux Tales by Jazmine Sullivan.

Paige: Oh, I think I might have read that because I was looking at you now, like, I’ve seen her before.

Shipley-Gates: Yeah that was me! My first one, so I was like, I think I like this. It was my inner Brittany Cooper trying to straddle the line between academia and the mainstream. I enjoyed writing and you’re right, it takes a lot out of us to try to commit to what pays the bills and trying to do what we love to do. I’ve had to commit to that but if not, I have my own blog. Blogging and writing these articles are a perfect way to present work like your book in a way that’s more visible and accessible.

Paige: Yeah, what a great project to write about.

Heaux Tales (2021)

Shipley-Gates: Heaux Tales is a perfect example too, of Sullivan being able to share what she’s gone through, but in the musical form. She’s able to say something that people are grappling with – like what’s a good girl? You know, I definitely go there because when it comes to books like yours or articles that we love to write, or just musical artists, people like to be hypocritical, without realizing that there’s a lot that we have in common. However, somebody has got to let you know what we have in common, especially Black women. Don’t be too much on your high horse, she’s saying; you got hoe tales just like anybody else.

It’s good to see that you’re still pushing and that’s awesome. Are you on Instagram, Twitter, where can readers find you?

Paige: They can follow me on Twitter, because I don’t really get on Instagram, but it’s @DeAsia_paige

Shipley-Gates: I know you haven’t really done that much marketing, but we still want to pump you up, especially with the Bitch Media article out, we want to be able to push that as well.

So do you have any thoughts of future projects? Are you thinking of another book? Or are you going a different route? I know, you said that your work is sucking up a lot of your time. But your ideal situation: if there was another 20 hours in a day, what would your future projects look like?

Paige: I’ll definitely be doing more music journalism, for sure. As far as another book, I wrote this book through a program affiliated with Georgetown University that helps you write a book in a year. The process was very rushed, but then there was also the pandemic. I was trying to graduate and move to St. Louis all while finishing the book. I With a lot of things going on, that made the writing process a little bit less enjoyable for me. Now, if I were to do another book I would go at my own pace. Do what I want whenever I want to do it, not a set timeframe, which was just impossible, I don’t know how I did that with everything that was going on, but yeah, I would love to write another book maybe in five years.

Shipley-Gates: Right, you need more material, you need more to report on, but in the meantime, you’re working on musical journalism. Now we can try to see future projects. One last question, what would you say to all of your readers, especially the ones who are, were, or might end up dealing with traumatic experiences, similar to what you experienced in college?

Paige: I would say don’t think that you’re doing too much or that you’re being overdramatic. Don’t beat yourself up too harshly. Just be gentle with yourself and know that your feelings are valid, even when you think that they aren’t. I’m an overthinker, so when you have that compounded with the patriarchy and how men can act, you start to think that maybe I am doing too much. You become overly apologetic for whatever you did, but that’s the patriarchy at work for sure. I want readers to know that they are never alone, never be afraid to advocate for yourself because you’re definitely worth it. For sure.

Shipley-Gates: That was brilliantly said. Any last thoughts or comments that you would love your readers to know about your book that I didn’t ask about?

Paige: This is so crazy. I’m always the one doing the interview and that’s the question I ask people at the end.  I’ve never been asked that question before. But no, I think you’ve covered it. I’m glad that you were interested in doing this, I really appreciate it. The Project on the History of Black Writing connected us for sure, and I’m excited to see how it turns out.

Shipley-Gates: Thank you so much again for being willing to meet with me. Amazing job. I’m proud of you and let’s push this book out, because I think a lot of people need this.

DeAsia’s book can be found here and you can also find part one of the interview here.

 

Shawna Shipley-Gates is a graduate student in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas. Her research interest highlights the cultural literacy of black women’s sexual health and how those cultural experiences can be translated into effective yet sex-positive education; healthcare and wellness practices; and policy and advocacy work. She is also the owner of Cupcake Noire, a sex-positive brand for black cis, trans and non-binary womxn.

An interview with DeAsia Paige, author of The College Diaries Pt. 1

[ By: Shawna Shipley-Gates ]

The College Diaries: How a Budding Black Feminist Found Her Voice, by HBW alum DeAsia Paige was released in 2020. When Shipley-Gates published the review, during Women’s History Month, she and Paige began an important conversation. The Project on the History of Black Writing hopes that sharing that conversation can help shed light on the culture that too many young women encounter when they enter college.

In Part I of the interview Paige discusses the journey that led to the creation of her first book and the inspiration behind it. More than a background story, Paige is breaking the silence for her generation. The College Diaries offers us a startling example of why “much work needs to be done to help Black women, especially in college, get the help that they need,” according to Shipley-Gates, “whether it’s social support, trying to meet friends, or important networks.”

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity *

The College Diaries (2020)

Shipley-Gates: I just want to say that book is a damn good book, damn good book. I’ve been out of undergraduate school since 2006. It’s very reassuring to know that at least two of us in this world have experienced these things in college. And even though I went to an historically Black college [HBCU], you had me right there with every word: it was very refreshingly raw and transparent. I would love for you to tell your readers a little bit about yourself, what would you like them to know?

DeAsia Paige

Paige: Aw, I’m glad. To start off, I’m naturally introverted, so I would say I’m inherently a better writer than I am speaker. I don’t know if that shows in the book at all, but I use writing as my therapeutic relief when I’m going through things. I wanted to show that in the book because I was talking about some very real experiences. I wanted to write in a way that you could tell what I was going through, sympathize with me in a way, and see how that relates to your own life. That’s the first thing I want readers to know about me, that I wouldn’t share this kind of information with people by just having a conversation with them. I would write it down and open it up to the world; it’s just so crazy. Even as an introvert, writing provides that space for me to feel confident in sharing my experiences.

Shipley-Gates: That’s good to know. I don’t know if I got that you were an introvert, but I knew that social support was very important to you. I wouldn’t expect you to be a public speaker and announce all of this, but I can definitely see that that writing is your outlet. We need more of that especially among Black women: to be able to come forward and share our experiences. How did you know that it was time to share your story, via book? Walk me through the journey toward that decision?

Paige: Since my first year, I’d been writing some of what’s in the book while those things were happening. Once it got to my senior year, I was like, I have this record of my experiences in college, I might as well just put it together into a book. That’s what I did. It wasn’t really anything that I’ve been thoroughly pursuing. It wasn’t planned, like I want to write this and I’m gonna do this at this time. It came naturally because I had been writing for the four years, and it made sense to do that.

Shipley-Gates: It’s like a journal – where you were able to document what was happening in real time. I was wondering if that was the case because the book is vivid and descriptive with so many details. I was curious if you were writing retrospectively or whether everything was happening as you went along. What made you decide ‘‘this is it”? “I’m about to tell all my business, KU is gonna hear about what happened while I was with them.” What made you feel like, “I don’t care, I’m doing it”?

Paige: It’s funny that you say that because I still feel that way a little bit. People say that they are reading my book, I’m like, “Oh shit, they’re about to find out things about me that I would not naturally just tell you.” I still feel weird about it, because I’m thinking, “Well damn, I just put all my personal business our there for everybody to see.”

At the same time, I think that there’s a sort of power in that, especially for Black women to be able to see themselves. By going through those things, I often felt like I was alone, but I think in retrospect, I learned that you’re never alone in those situations, although you might feel that way. With that in mind, I knew that this was something that people needed to find. That I wasn’t alone in those situations that happened to me, especially when talking about Black women.

Shipley-Gates: Well good. I can only imagine professors I’m assuming you’re talking about or fellow classmates and how they would react.

Paige: Yeah, even my family members. One of my bosses mentioned that he bought it, and I was thinking: oh, let me just send you an annotated guide. I didn’t actually say that, but I thought that in my head. I felt like Harper from the movie The Best Man.

Shipley-Gates: You’re still selling, you’re still going through that, so what’s been the overall response to your book? Knowing that certain people may be called out or they’re learning these pieces about you that they had no idea about, what’s been the reaction?

Paige: For the most part, it’s been surprisingly positive. Even my great-grandma, who I would say, is very conservative. I was hesitant to even tell her about the book because I knew that she might disagree with some things I mentioned, like sex positivity.  I know she has a different frame of mind, and I didn’t know how she would take it, but she liked it. I know it’s short, but everybody seems to be reading the book in one or two days, so it’s been positive so far. It’s a surprise because I really thought that I was gonna get heavily scrutinized. That really wasn’t the case at all. It’s definitely been positive, for sure.

Shipley-Gates: That’s good to hear. It’s interesting that you mentioned your great-grandmother, because I know a lot of what you’re mentioning is the heavy influence of church and religion and how you’re grappling with that relationship. I can only imagine the thoughts of these people who raised you in that faith. That they are having positive reactions is a good sign.

Let me also say that this book is very relatable and accessible.  That people read it in a day or two. I read it in a couple hours because I could totally relate—I can only imagine that someone younger or someone who isn’t in academia can definitely go through it without a problem. This is another important piece to the book’s importance.

Paige: Right! That’s another thing I was concerned about. Like a memoir is typically a short book, but I didn’t think people were gonna read it in like, one day.

Shipley-Gates: Yeah, because it is so accessible, it’s a book that you don’t want to put down.

Let me return to that moment when you decided to write the book and put all your entries together.  What was the one idea that you hoped your readers would take away when reading your book?

Paige: One thing is the idea that Black women can be many things. I think sometimes people like to place us in this box and say “oh, if you’re a sex positive and you share thirst traps of yourself on Instagram, then there’s no way that girl can be smart and intelligent, or just talk about feminism and have all these ideas about love and relationships.” Like, no, those two things can coexist. I think that’s something that I’ve definitely struggled with throughout my life. I grew up in a church, where you are taught just be this one way.  There’s so much freedom in knowing that you can be more than just one way, and more than what society has already predetermined for you. I think for Black women, that’s essentially a great lesson to learn because so many times we’re just so compartmentalized by men and by those outside of our community as well. I think that’s one thing I would hope readers take away from it, regardless if you’re a Black woman or not.

A caricature of Sarah Baartman, a Black woman who was hypersexualized in European art and used to reinforce negative sexual stereotypes.

Shipley-Gates: That’s perfect, because that’s definitely what I personally got out of that. I hope that’s what the readers got out of it as well. It’s very rare to get to talk to the actual author and say, “this is what I got out of this; is this what you wanted?” You definitely made that clear. I loved how you were also doing some fact checking, some clarification, providing some education there, which I appreciated. Defining the history of hypersexuality of Black women like Sara Baartman and happiness;  defining virginity and explaining it as a social construct. You walk us through the Black Superwoman trope and do a great job of that. That’s part of the accessibility of being able to say, “in case you didn’t know, these are some of the hats that they’re making us wear, these are some of the things they’re predetermining for us, and so I’m here to let you know that we don’t have to do that.” I really appreciate that as well. Kudos, it’s really hard to try to take information, especially when we’re in academia, and explain it in accessible terms. When you were talking about intersectionality, you were always trying to find a way to explain it to the general reader – and you definitely succeeded.

Paige: Thank you so much. I was hoping everything was clear, because I knew that there was going to be some things that would be like, “well, what is she talking about?” But I was hoping that people would understand what I was saying.

Shipley-Gates: And the virginity piece too, when I realized I was like – oh is she going there? That’s the one conversation that the church likes to push onto Black women, especially when they’re trying to play respectability politics and forcing us to be virgins. We can try to change those negative sexual narratives about us. You’re letting us know that that’s still something that’s keeping us from living in our true skin.  This is what I loved about it.

Have any of your KU professors read your book yet?

Paige: See, this is where my introverted side comes out, because in my opinion, I have not marketed the book as well as I should have. I don’t think professors know about it. I’ve shared it on social media, but I haven’t done that much direct outreach, which I need to do. I’ve heard from KU students who have read it and they liked it so far, but in terms of professors in those higher up positions, I haven’t reached out to them.

Shipley-Gates: Well Dr. Graham [Ku English] knows about it and I don’t know if you ever worked with Dr. Ayesha Hardison [Ku English/Women, Gender and Sexuality], but she knows about it, too. She put me on to Dr. Graham to read the book and do the book review, so I’m very grateful to both of them because I would have never known about it. It was funny because I was trying to find a book for the Free Black Women’s Library and I’m like, oh, this will be great. You’re already signed up to do it!

Paige: Yes. Megan Williams [Assistant Director Emily Taylor Center for Women & Gender Equity], she knows about it, so that’s somebody else but yes, she reached out to me to be a part of that. I don’t know why I’m selling myself short.

Shipley-Gates: Thinking retrospectively, or maybe you even had notes about this throughout your college career, how could KU have helped you during these challenging times in your college life? Did you ever have those thoughts about what you think was missing or what you loved about KU’s assistance, if they did? What were you thinking at that time?

Paige: I do wish there was more. I know KU has G.E.M.S (Gifted Empowered Motivated Sisters), but that was a great group for me that I joined my junior year. I just wish there were more Black woman-centric groups on campus because G.E.M.S didn’t come about until my later years. I was about to walk out the door, but I feel with more outreach maybe my experience would have been a little bit less lonely. KU was not that diverse to begin with, but I think having those systems of support would have been great once I got there. When I first got to KU, it was just so white to me, I didn’t even want to go there and go to that school initially, because of how white it was. I’m used to being around Black people and that’s who I’ve been around my whole life.  It was kind of a culture shock, but not really. I just really wish they had those systems support already in place once I got there.

Shipley-Gates: That’s good to know. That’s a perfect example of how your work translates into something bigger, like making possible changes that are needed, because again, like you said, you’re not the only one, but it felt that way at the time.

Paige: Yeah, I’m just hoping that future students have that support that I didn’t get.

Shipley-Gates: I think that’s a good point: especially at predominantly white institutions, they need to do a better job during that first year. As you said, it’s a not culture shock because you do know that’s how the real world operates, and yet it’s still different from what you’re used to. They expect you to survive like that for four years, if not more if you choose to stay and get advanced degrees.

Since you’re an HBW alum, what influence did HBW have on your book or in your life in general so far?

Paige: HBW was one of those support systems in a way that G.E.M.S. was for me. Obviously, HBW was in existence prior to my coming to KU, but I didn’t really get involved until my junior year, same with G.E.M.S. I felt like I had my own family there and I still miss the atmosphere, especially with my new job where it’s very white. HBW definitely helped with my research skills which I was able to use when writing my book in researching things like feminism and virginity and various social constructs. Working with HBW taught me that there’s always going to be research in whatever you do; it’s crucial to my work today, even as a journalist.  I do that, like 24/7 now. I think those two things – a family support system and knowing that research is crucial to whatever I do – definitely helped me with this book and really everything in my life in general.

Check back for Part II of this interview.

Shawna Shipley-Gates is a graduate student in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her research interest highlights the cultural literacy of black women’s sexual health behaviors and how those cultural experiences can be translated into effective yet sex-positive education; healthcare and wellness practices; and policy and advocacy work. She is also the owner of Cupcake Noire, which is a sex-positive brand for black cis, trans and non-binary womxn.

“Lest We Forget”: The Centennial of the Tulsa Riots May 31, 1921 – May 31, 2021

HBW joins the national commemoration of the centennial of the Tulsa Riots of 1921. Also referred to as the Tulsa Massacre, the Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma was considered a mecca of Black economic and cultural growth at the time.  On May 31, 1921, “Black Wall Street” – as it was called – was attacked by a mob of armed white rioters. Local businesses, homes, schools, churches and countless other community establishments were burned to the ground. An estimated 300 people died as a result and over 10,000 people were left homeless. The event is recognized as one of the most horrific acts of racial violence against African Americans in the 20th century.

Tulsa Massacre 1921. PC: History.com

KU Professor Darren Canady on his play False Creeds, based on Tulsa’s Greenwood Community Massacre:

Tulsa Riots 1921. PC: The Conversation

My relationship with Tulsa’s Greenwood Community massacre came through my grandmother as part of a package of stories and reminiscences from growing up with family members. The hardest thing is . . . she told it to me because she knew I would never get that information in any other way.  It was a history that, like the Greenwood community itself, there were active attempts to erase,  She knew it was secretive work, and my grandmother had to encode for me, supplementing things so I could understand how I became a little black boy in the world.

When I started the research for False Creeds around 2005, the graduate students who had been doing their research in the late 1980s had received death threats.  That is the value of archives, our storytellers and people doing humanities work.  While I am glad that “Watchmen,”  “Lovecraft Country” and other pop culture creations are taking this up, it’s important to remember that my grandmother, her siblings,  and her cousins who told my cousins who told those graduate students all knew it was dangerous work . . . It IS dangerous work.”

Darren Canady is a Topeka Kansas native who graduated from the New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Canady returned to Kansas to join the English Department at the University of Kansas, where he teaches playwriting. A thriving career with more than fifteen staged productions and a host of residencies, Canady’s searing narratives often display a comic undertone, taken from stories that he grew up listening to. He imparts the same sense of life, exuberance, and expressiveness to his award-winning plays. Written against the backdrop of Jim Crow, the Great Migration, and the Civil Rights Movement, Canady’s performances champion the unique culture of African-American life in the Midwest. Although at home in the Kansas Heartland, he and his plays travel widely — the US, Europe, and Asia.

False Creeds poster Credit: Dan Moyer and Anneliese Moyer, ©️2007

False Creeds “tells the story of Jason, a young man who embarks on a journey to discover the legacy of his family’s past.” Set in 1921 in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, the play follows Jason as he relives the night of the Tulsa Massacre through the eyes of a young girl, Jason’s grandmother. The award-winning play premiered on Feb. 9, 2007 in Atlanta, Georgia at the Alliance Theatre.

The full interview will be forthcoming on HBW’s blog.

 

In commemoration of the centennial, MSNBC’s Trymaine Lee conducted interviews with Greenwood residents for “A Conspiracy of Silence.”  Black Tulsans are left asking, “What does justice look like after 100 years?” Watch the documentary HERE


 

Also check out Red Summer and Tulsa: The Fire and Forgotten, two documentaries on the Tulsa Riots which feature DeNeen Brown, a KU School of Journalism and Mass Communications alum. Brown now a distinguished professor at the University of Maryland, will be covering events in Tulsa for the Washington Post, and you can find some of her articles down below. You can watch Tulsa: The Fire and Forgotten HERE . Red Summer will premiere on Hulu and National Geographic on June 18-19, but you can check out the trailer HERE .

Links to further information on the Tulsa Riots

News Articles

In Tulsa, solemn remembrances of a century-old race massacre by survivors and descendants (2021)

His arrest sparked the Tulsa Race Massacre. Then Dick Rowland disappeared (2021)

A Century After the Race Massacre, Tulsa Confronts its Bloody Past NPR (2021)

What the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed NYT (2021)

Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Before, During and After the Tulsa Race Massacre History (2021) 

100 Years After the Tulsa Massacre, What Does Justice Look Like? NYT (2021)

Tulsa massacre survivor at 107 years old testifies that the horror of that day never goes away CNN (2021)

Tulsa Race Massacre History (2018)

Revisit the history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Tulsa World (2021)

Scholarly Articles

A Long-Lost Manuscript Contains a Searing Eyewitness Account of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 Smithsonian Magazine (2016)

Tulsa, Then and Now: Reflections on the Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (2020)

Tulsa Race Massacre Goes From ‘Too Obscure’ to Hollywood Spotlight (2020)

We look like men of war: Africana male narratives and the Tulsa Race Riot, War and Massacre of 1921 (2002)

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (2020)

Behind the Tulsa Riot (2014)

When more than property is lost: the dignity losses and restoration of the Tulsa Riot of 1921 (2016)

The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (2004)

Unearthing the True Toll of the Tulsa Race Massacre (2020)

Photographing the Tulsa Massacre: A Conversation with Karlos K. Hill (2021)

The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921: Toward an Integrative Theory of Collective Violence (2011)

The 1921 Tulsa Massacre – Humanities: The National Magazine of NEH (2021)

Selected Books

The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 by Mary E. Jones (2021)

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carol Boston Weatherford (2021)

Opal’s Greenwood Oasis by Najah-Amatullah Hylton and Quraysh Ali Lansana (2021)

Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by Brandy Colbert (2021)

Across the Tracks: Remembering Greenwood, Black Wall Street, and the Tulsa Race Massacre by Alverne Ball (2021)

Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink (2021)

The Tulsa Massacre of 1921: The Controversial History and Legacy of America’s Worst Race Riot by Charles River Editors (2020)

Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples with Its Historical Racial Trauma by Hannibal B. Johnson (2020)

Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Massacre by Randy Krehbiel (2019)

Holocaust in the Homeland: Black Wall Street’s Last Days by Corinda Pitts Marsh (2014)

Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District by Hannibal B. Johnson (2014)

The Burning: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 by Tim Madigan (2013)

Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street by Eddie Faye Gates (2003)

Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy by James S. Hirsch (2001)

Race riot 1921: Events of the Tulsa Disaster by Mary E. Jones Parrish (1998)

Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Scott Ellsworth (1992)

 

Figures of History: Louise Meriweather

[ By Ashley Simmons ]

Since the beginning of her career, Louise Meriwether demonstrated that writers have a responsibility to something outside of themselves and their writing. Meriwether made it her personal mission to write about the Black experience both as she saw it growing up and also as a way to remind American people of the impact Black people have had on the history of this country. As she celebrates her 98th birthday, HBW would like to spotlight Louise Meriwether and her contributions both to Black writing and to the struggle for change.

Meriwether is quoted saying “To be denied the knowledge of the accomplishments of your race is to instill in a people a lack of self-worth and a sense of shame and guilt. We have to understand that guilt is self-inflicted. Since we inflicted it upon ourselves, we can remove it. We can stand the truth. It is the half-truths, the lies, distortions, stereotypes, and caricatures which bring us pain, but we do not have to accept them as our reality. And so, I began to write, to dig out the truth about my people and expose that truth to the light” and write she did.

Members of The Sisterhood in 1977. The Sisterhood was made up of prominent Black women writers. Pictured here (front, left-right): Nana Maynard, Ntozake Shange, Louise Meriwether (back row left-right) Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Alice Walker, Audrey Edwards, Toni Morrison and June Jordan. PC: SUNU Journal

After the success of her first novel, Daddy was a Number Runner, Meriwether turned her focus to rectifying the omission of Black contributions in American history. In an essay titled, “Remembrances from the Civil War,” Meriwether recalls her childhood growing up in New York as the only Black girl in her class. Meriwether recalls feelings of shame and guilt around her Blackness coming as a result in part to her being the only Black person (let alone student) in the classrooms she attended. This issue of being the only Black person in the room followed her to college at NYU. There, she recalls a time when one of her professors misrepresented enslaved people as docile and lucky to be civilized in the U.S. Meriwether remembers that this misrepresentation of enslaved people left her feeling embarrassed. Because of the stories her father told her about the people in her family who escaped slavery, she knew there was little truth to this characterization. Meriwether attributes these experiences to her desire to write about Black Americans and their impact on American history.

Meriwether wrote “After publication of my first novel…I turned my attention to black history for the kindergarten set, recognizing that the deliberate omission of Blacks from American history has been damaging to the children of both races. It reinforces in one a feeling of inferiority and in the other the myth of superiority”.

Because of her experiences and her personal convictions, Meriwether’s first audience was young readers, for whom she published a series of books spotlighting important Black figures in American history. One of these children’s books, The Freedom Ship of Robert Smalls, eventually culminated into the novel Fragments of the Ark, a story about Peter Mango, an enslaved man who leads a group of enslaved people and commandeers to a Confederate boat to escape. Meriwether’s writing career spans almost 5 decades. In addition to her novels and children’s literature, she has written various short stories and poems and has accomplished many firsts, including writing for Essence’s first issue in 1970 and becoming the first Black story editor in Hollywood.

Meriwether’s writing is the product of her continued activism. As a self-proclaimed peacenik, over the years Meriwether has worked with other prominent artists and writers to form groups that not only acted as community for Black artists at the time, but also as an epicenter for her activism. In 1967, while living in Los Angeles,

Meriwether joined the Watts Writers Guild, a writer’s group established in the aftermath of the Watts riots of 1965. It was during her time here that Daddy Was a Number Runner was first published as an excerpt in a special edition of The Antioch Review. By 1968, in alignment with her philosophy of accurate portrayals of historical Black figures in American history, Meriwether chaired the Black Anti-Defamation Association (BADA) to prevent the production of a film based on William Styron’s book The Confessions of Nat Turner. BADA insisted that the book portrayed Nat Turner, famous slave revolt leader, in a historically inaccurate and unflattering light. Their protests led to Twentieth Century Fox eventually dropping the project. In addition to her mission to ensure that accurate portrayals of Black historical figures are included in the American history canon, Meriwether also openly disdained the negative impact of globalization, particularly on writers in the African diaspora and the Global South. In 1997, Meriwether was a founding member of the International Organization of Women Writers of Africa Yari Yari Conference. At the conference, Meriwether argued that as media conglomerates continue to buy up smaller publishing houses and censor what is produced, it is up to writers to be vigilant in finding new methods to broadcast their messages. Her activism persevered through to the 21st century. In 2002, at the age of 79, she and 600 other activists were arrested for protesting the International Monetary Fund. Meriwether continues her activism as a member of the Granny Peace Brigade, an organization that opposes war and the violence of racism and poverty.

Louise Meriwether and current members of the Harlem Writers Guild

On page 22 of Impact of New Technologies and Globalization on Literature Publishing and Distribution in the African Diaspora, Meriwether said, “As writers who care about the deplorable state of the world… we need to be aware of all of the ramifications of globalization so that we can be the truth-sayers, taking the message to the people”

Through the decades, Louise Meriwether has remained true to her personal mission of Black writing as a means of organizing and protesting. She remains an inspiration to writers and activists alike and her life is a blueprint for how artists can produce art with purpose.

 

Works Cited

Meriwether, Louise. “Remembrances from the Civil War.” Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, vol. 3, no. 3, 2001, pp. 181-184.

Meriwether Louise. “Impact of New Technologies and Globalization on Literature Publishing and Distribution in the African Diaspora.” Black Scholar, vol. 38, no. 2-3, 2008, pp. 21-23.

Greene, Brenda M. “Louise Meriwether: A Life of Writing and Activism.”

Cornillon Koppleman, Susan. The Other Woman: Stories of Two Women and a Man. Feminist Press, 1984.

 

Ashley Simmons is a PhD student in literature. Her primary interests are speculative fiction, African American literature of the 20th century and transgressive fiction.  In addition to her studies, Ashley has a background in media education and civic engagement. After graduation, she will pursue a non-academic track that combines her interests in literature with media production and civic engagement.

Book Review: “All the Songs We Sing: Celebrating 25 years of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective”

[ By Simone Savannah ]

“All the Songs We Sing” celebrates the 25th anniversary of The Carolina African American Writers’ Collective, which began in 1995 as a group where aspiring Black authors could come to have their work peer reviewed. The history of writer’s collectives stems back decades, starting most notably with the South Side Writer’s Group, which was founded by Richard Wright in 1936 and was made up of writers such as Arna Bontemps and Margaret Walker. The South Side Writers Group helped Wright publish the “Blueprint for Negro Literature” an essay in which Wright wrote about the role of African American writers in the collective consciousness of African Americans. For decades, writer’s collectives have created a space for Black writers to share their work, build their skills, and create a community which has helped in the publication of countless Black literary works.

All the Songs We Sing celebrates the Collective’s 25th anniversary. Lenard D. Moore, the founder, desired to create a Black writing movement that focused on cultivating craft and voice. He had taken a poetry workshop where he and other Black students had to constantly explain cultural and historical references in their poems. The goal of The Carolina African American Writers’ Collective “was not to make our story palatable to those who didn’t understand it. It was simply to tell it, the way that was uniquely our voice.” 

The poems explore Black womanhood and girlhood, place and nature, history and memory, pain and abuse. They are written in free verse, sonnets, and haikus. Poems such as Moore’s “Interrogation of Harriet Tubman.” where he writes about the complicated choice to escape slavery, reach back in time and speak to ancestors. Fearing leaving children behind to be “snatched and sold,” the speaker asks Tubman difficult questions:

“Will I ever see them again?”

“What am I going to eat?”

“Can you tell me what’s waiting for us/in the thicker?”

Poems like “When I Consider the Open Casket” by Kim Arrington and “Because of Emmett Till” by Diane Judge route readers through a racist American history, and rebirth Emmett, a Black child who was hunted and murdered by white men in Mississippi. The poems are deliberate in retelling history as well as meditating about the personal. In “A Few Years In,” readers get a glimpse into a reflective moment about love and closeness: 

“When I squeeze too tight

she never pushes back

like she needs room”

The fiction and creative nonfiction featured in the anthology also showcase the writers’ abilities to write across genres as they pull readers into their political and social realities. The stories explore loss and grief, choices surrounding motherhood, and food and community.

Lenard D. Moore
PC: Salisbury Post

The weaving of the historical and the personal emphasizes the complexity of the writers and the purpose of the Collective to craft poems that speak to their experiences as Black people in the Carolinas and beyond. As Jaki Shelton Green writes in the foreword, the anthology demonstrates “the urgency of protecting the agency of Black voices that reflect our people, politics, social conditions, and subject matter that should be a catalyst for engagement. The poetry, fiction, and nonfiction assist in constructing a “diverse and energetic” literary landscape where the writers magnify experiences through various devices, including metaphor, orality, and vernacular – the songs of these writers come together as a beautiful and complex ensemble. Readers encounter an array of language and experience bridging memoirs, essays, and poems that push them to think consciously and critically. 

In the afterword, Lauri Scheyer reflects on All The Songs We Sing as a “re-collection and re-assessment” of a literary family. She writes, “these writers have sprung forward from and are influenced by this shared and hallowed soil” (192). This collection is undoubtedly a reunion of talented Black writers that honors their craft and contributions to American Literature.

The anthology features poetry, fiction, and nonfiction by Kim Arrington, Dr. L. Teresa Church, Camille T. Dungy, Fred Joiner, Angela Belcher Epps, Bridgette A. Lacy, Sheila Smith McKoy, Carole Boston Weatherford, Evie Shockley, Crystal Simone Smith, L. Lamar Wilson, and Gideon Young.

 

More Writer’s Collectives

The DRC at their home base in Cambridge, MA. PC: Poets & Writers

Harlem Writers Guild

The Harlem Writers Guild is the oldest continuously operating Black writer’s guild in the world. It was established in 1950 as a forum where African American writers could develop their craft and continues to be a place of community for Black writers.

The Dark Room Collective 

The Dark Room Collective was founded in Boston in 1988 and was led by Thomas Sayers Ellis and Sharan Strange. It was originally a reading series but became a community of established and emerging African American poets and writers.

Group portrait of the EBR Writers Club in 1997.
PC: Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Eugene B. Redmond Writers Club

The Eugene B. Redmond (EBR) Writers Club was founded in East St. Louis in 1986. The club has coordinated a workshop for writers for over thirty years now. Members of the club have collaborated on a variety of arts programming, including poetry performances, teaching sessions, an annual Kwanzaa event. The EBR Club also co-produced the arts journal Drumvoices Revue.

 

 

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 recently published a book of poetry titled Uses of My Body.