Preface to Reading Frederick Douglass (for whom it indeed concerns)

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Go thou, and like an executioner
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.
Richard II. III.iv. 33-36
In a chapter on Shakespeare’s Richard II, James Boyd White proposed “that every claim of authority we can make, on any subject and in any language, should be regarded as marked by a kind of structural tentativeness, for every claim implies its counter within its language and every language implies a host of others answering it” ( Acts of Hope: Creating Authority in Literature, Law and Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994: 77).  If there is validity in this positioning of claim and language, it is obvious that our speaking, our struggles to transform the actual into the materiality of American English sounds, is a defense mechanism (either a learned motion or an instinctive reflex) to conquer abject insanity.  White’s statement may reduce fear of political language, but it intensifies dread of devastating political action.  Should we commend White for arming our minds to deal with the disconnection of language and action since January 20, 2017?
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White’s civility and Donald Trump’s barbarity arrive at an identical point of structural tentativeness as we make choices about what we can tolerate in a democracy and what (not who I hasten to note) we should murder therein. Our priority is to defend ourselves and  to murder systems not human beings.
Neither the aesthetic enlightenment of Richard II nor the rhetorical insight of Acts of Hope is sufficient, because we are condemned by common sense and existential necessity (if we do want to survive) to deal brutally with the New Fascism which has replaced the Old Jim Crow and the debatable efficacy of an American Dream.
Should we not master the structural tentativeness of Frederic Douglass’s oration, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 5 July 1852,” and treat it as more than ritual remembering or historical ceremony?  Contemporary slaves are rainbow—- indigenous, African, Hispanic, Caucasian, Hebraic,  of Islamic ancestry, Asian, and diversely gendered.  These slaves constitute the total population of the United States of America.  Should our bodies follow our minds through the portals of Douglass’s language and fight in the toxic combat zones engineered each day by the Tribe of Trump?  The answer is in your brain.  Do you believe that “all must be even in our government”? 

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

Guns on Campus: Why We Cannot Be Silent

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Fannie Lou Hamer, who would now be 100 were she alive, became a tireless fighter for social justice. Who can forget her bold proclamation: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  Mrs. Hamer refused to be silent. She registered to vote in Mississippi, barely escaping death at the hands of those who feared her actions would move others to civil disobedience. We continue to ignore what she and others instinctively knew: silence makes us complicit in bringing about our own demise. Because social, political, and, yes, institutional issues always imply a power imbalance, our silence ensures that the most vulnerable among us will face new forms of oppression, guaranteeing the persistence of inequality.  Silence normalizes indifference. Inequality and indifference are a lethal combination.  That lethal combination becomes a terrifying reality when we add guns on campus.

When students make the personal choice to seek higher education at a public university, they unwittingly engage in a political act as they become increasingly aware of their rights and privileges. In Kansas, the act takes on new meaning—and at great risk to all of us on July 1.  The legislators who favor the implementation of concealed carry have won the battle: the signs banning guns will come down, and students 21 or older will be allowed to carry weapons.  No license or training required.

We in Kansas are now in a contested zone: faculty and students are at loggerheads with state laws and ideologues who seek to dictate our future. They—state government and its spokespeople with little if any understanding of higher education—want to exercise their power. We—trained in higher education, shaping minds through guided instruction, preparing leaders, and conducting difficult dialogues that respect difference—have a choice. Do we want to commit to teaching and learning and stand up against guns; or do we want to play it safe and choose to be indifferent?

President Trump has made his position clear. “I will never, ever impinge on your right to bear arms,” he told the National Rifle Association. His pronouncement curries favor with a portion of the American people, but it is a wake-up call for the rest of us. Make no mistake about it. That “right” does impinge upon our “responsibilities” to and for the community that we serve, including students from around the world.

Evidence provided by researchers, parents, educators, and ordinary citizens has repeatedly shown why carrying guns on the campuses of our colleges and universities does not make us safe. Our university communities are a microcosm of a heavily residential population that lives, works, and studies in close proximity, away from home and family during the most critical stages of students’ development and/or career transformation. Many people agree that social, economic, physical, gendered, and ideological differences lead to heightened awareness of the self and others that is both exhilarating and challenging. This laboratory of human existence and experience—local, national and international in scope—deeply connects us to each other.  No matter how small or how large the community, factors such as race and class as well as mental health and wellness intersect at all times.  The presence of guns will prove to be a profoundly disruptive force.

At the University of Kansas, debates over the gun issue have made us a heavily divided community. A safe space has been exchanged for a combat zone, where leadership and responsibility disconnect. Those whose job it is to lead are on one side, finding themselves unwilling or unable to take a stand against an egregious policy. To counter this stasis, faculty and students have pleaded with our legislators and protested publicly against the July 1 implementation of concealed carry. In this politically charged environment, we no longer have a shared understanding of who we are, how we must be, and what we must do as a community obligated to put students first. Our teaching and learning are compromised, forcing some of us to exercise another choice—to leave the university altogether.

If we accept concealed carry and do nothing to continue resisting its implementation on campus, we are writing our own death sentence.  That is the real political consequence we face as we prepare for the incoming class of new students. We owe them and those who are already in our midst responsible, courageous leadership.


Like Fannie Lou Hamer, we must stand up and resist.


Maryemma Graham is a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at the University of Kansas.

An Appreciation of Sterling A. Brown (1901-1989)

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The outcome and aftermath of the recent presidential election have unleashed upon the world an enervating, extremist public discourse rooted in divisiveness, intolerance, and discord.  In this language, the moral imperatives of civility, mutual respect, and common sense have been sacrificed to political cant and ethnocentrism.  The politics of insincerity and expediency have become poor substitutes for compassion and statesmanship.  Truth and reason have come under assault by “alternative facts” and irrationality.  All of this begs the question Black feminist June Jordan raised in 1978: “Where is the love?”  While many have answered Jordan’s query—including, among others, the richly symbolic Toni Morrison and Michael S. Harper and the more popular Terry McMillan and E. Lynn Harris—Sterling A. Brown* anticipates with unerring insight the concerns of today’s chorus of quite diverse voices.

Born 1 May 1901, Brown emerged in the 1930s and 1940s as one of the outstanding proponents of humanistic value in a day and time beset with Depression and World War.   His astute insight into personal and cultural value addressed many of the concerns we wrestle with today: poverty, racism, diversity, inclusion, and more.  Driving this engagement was an aesthetic vision he derived from the lives, language, and lore of Black folk.  Without preaching or proselytizing, his innovative poetry and eloquent prose ushered us into an understanding of the extraordinary in ordinary life.  He transformed the lives of Black vernacular speakers into models of wit, wisdom, and compassion.  His art subtly revealed the hypocrisy, hatred, and difference that forced people into silos of racial and class separation.  More importantly, his poetry provided a way out.  It was an implicit guide to humanism, interracial communion, and more.  This pursuit helped to sustain those qualities that made people human.

The legacy of “separate but equal,” from the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, survived in the white popular imagination and encouraged seven Black literary stereotypes in American literature.  In prose that was both analytic and satiric, Brown challenged the illogic of these misrepresentations.  For the 1920s and 1930s, Brown’s critical act was innovative.  He was the first literary historian to explore the social necessity that formed the basis for these stereotypes.  The “Brute Negro,” for example, resulted from the post-Reconstruction imperative used to justify the recreation of new modes of chattel slavery: chain gangs, sharecropping, tenant farming, convict leasing, and prison farms.  One manifestation of the “Tragic Mulatto” held that the offspring of an interracial relationship found her- (or him-) self torn between two biological inheritances.

The resulting tension between the “intellectual strivings” from the character’s white inheritance and the character’s “baser, emotional urges” from his/her Black parent ends tragically because the character is unable to reconcile these conflicting impulses.  In late nineteenth century literature and early twentieth century film, the mulatto character served to warn whites of the “imminent danger” in miscegenation.  Brown’s reasonable refutation of these and the other stereotypes sought to develop a more intellectually-aware and culturally-competent audience.  Brown dramatically asserts the prospects of personal transformation, which, in turn, forces individuals into a confrontation with their past and present.


Truly Kindred: Paying Homage to Octavia Butler

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How do you celebrate a writer who shook the ground beneath her feet? Who created worlds, manipulated space and time, and walked boldly into unchartered territory?

Author of 14 novels, a multitude of science and fantasy short stories, and a crop of critical essays, Octavia Butler’s voice resounds posthumously in the midst of today’s social and political unrest, mounting environmental issues, and pervasive violence. The writer had a mind and vision beyond her time. Gone too soon, Octavia Butler would have been 70 years young today.

Butler was a groundbreaking, critically-acclaimed writer when few Black writers achieved success in the science fiction genre. She was the winner of both Hugo and Nebula Awards for her short fiction and the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “Genius Grant.” Her ability to create multidimensional and moving characters, as well as futuristic and fantastic landscapes is unmatched as exemplified in what is perhaps her best-known work, Kindred (1979). This novel about a Black woman who time travels involuntarily to save her many-times great-grandparent illustrates the intersection of Blackness, memory, and trauma. Butler’s ideas about writing were clear: it should challenge the status quo. She was once quoted saying, “I wrote about power because I had so little.” But she was much more powerful than she perhaps imagined. Although she is no longer with us, her work still impacts and inspires writers, scholars, readers, and thinkers alike. The growing Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM), a flourishing of literary and artistic work centering Black voices in fantasy and science fiction, is a testament of the ground she tilled and seeds she’s sown. Today’s writers of Black speculative fiction are the harvest.

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Certainly, the burgeoning BSAM is peopled by her children. The outstanding success of Nnedi Okorafor (whose novella Binti also won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2016), Nalo Hopkinson, Ytasha Womack, Colson Whitehead (recent winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), and other Black writers of speculative fiction are indebted to Octavia Butler. Even artists of Afrofuturism, an ideology that considers the intersection of science fiction with Black culture and history purposed to bring marginalized voices to the fore, stand on her shoulders. Artists of all walks of life, from John Jennings to Ingrid LaFleur and Missy Elliot to Janelle Monae, stand on the shoulders of Afrofuturist ancestors like Octavia Butler. Hence, it is only fitting we take the time to celebrate and reflect on her legacy. I will honor her this week by reading a variety of her works starting with her novel Fledgling (2005) about a vampire woman’s journey to find her family. I invite you to join me by reading from one her novel series or short stories found here.



Anthony Boynton is a scholarly blerd and PhD student in English at the University of Kansas who writes about race, representation, pop culture and Afrofuturism.

Juneteenth 2017

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Juneteenth is the oldest celebration in America commemorating the abolition of slavery in America. Originating in Galveston, TX, on June. 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger announced the emancipation of slaves—two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. As this tradition has grown in importance and stature throughout history, Black communities across the country continue to celebrate Juneteenth with great festivity and ceremony.

Today marks the 152nd Anniversary of Juneteenth and we have gathered a list of resources and events to commemorate it:

National Museum of American American History and Culture

“Juneteenth and the memorial to black history in Texas

“Editorial: All of Kansas City should celebrate Juneteenth”

“Juneteenth proves to be day of history, conversation

“Poet brings verses of freedom to Juneteenth celebration

“Remembering Juneteenth ‘Is Not Just A Black Thing,’ Says Fort Worth’s Opal Lee”

Philadelphia Juneteenth celebrations to honor slaves’ journey to freedom

Many additional resources are available through the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation

Please check here for more information and literary resources on Juneteenth.

#BrooksFest – The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks

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Gwendolyn Brooks would have turned 100 this week and we’re out supporting BROOKSFEST in Topeka, KS. This centennial celebration of her life and legacy features HBW friend Kevin Young, a poetry walk, children’s activities, and much more.

Here are some of our favorite tributes to Gwendolyn Brooks

A Peek at Gwendolyn Brooks’s Chicago, Then and Now – Adam Morgan

A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life & Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks (Book) – Angela Jackson

Against Miracles – Evie Shockley

Remembering the Great Poet Gwendolyn Brooks at 100 – Code Switch NPR

We Real Cool (Video)