Monday, May 2, 2016

Margaret Walker almost won the Pulitzer in 1943

Last week on its site, the Pulitzer Foundation posted a story by Mike Pride, "One who got away." The "one" in question is Margaret Walker.  According to Pride, Walker's For My People (1942) was on the shortlist to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1943.

Pride presents an excerpt from Wilbur L. Cross, the jury chairman of the selection committee, who highlighted Walker's work:
“‘For my People,’ by Margaret Walker, a well-educated colored woman, now a college professor of English: Stephen Vincent BenĂ©t has given her a conspicuous place among the younger American poets. Miss Walker writes of her people with deep emotion, lightened here and there with humor. No one of her race, I think, has done better for them in verse.”
Pride quickly adds that "To the modern ear, these words sound condescending. But it is worth noting that Cross was a month shy of 80 years old when he wrote this report. He was born in 1862, the second year of the Civil War."

The committee ultimately decided to select Robert Frost's A Witness Tree. That was his fourth time winning the prize. Notably, as Pride notes, Frost was "a close friend of all three members of the jury."  

I've written about luck and awards recently. Well, we should also consider misfortune, or in this case what it meant that Walker lacked the many privileges, and hence opportunities for lucky breaks, that Frost had.  

What if the force of white supremacy in poetry in 1942 and 1943 had been slightly less? What if the Pulitzer Foundation had acknowledged the problem of having Frost's close friends serve as judges?  What would the histories of American and African American poetry look like if Walker had won the Pulitzer in 1943? The knowledge that For My People had made the shortlist led me to these and other questions.

Margaret Walker

Margaret Walker and exclamation points in African American poetry

Here's a message that Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine, who's also a relentless poetry news information sharing machine, sent out on Twitter yesterday:
I've been aware of Walker's poem for as long as I've been reading consciously poetry; thus, I did not expect to encounter anything I had not seen. Nonetheless, I've been inclined to follow Share's poetry links, so I decided to re-read Walker's poem just for fun.

Everything about the poem was as I'd always remembered it. Well, everything but one minor punctuation mark. The end of the original reads, "Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control!" The end with various online sources and books reads, "Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now rise and take control."

No sources I consulted beyond the original included the exclamation point at the end--a notable omission or shift. I'm not sure if Walker or editors made the change over the years. With the exclamation point, Walker's poem has a more forceful closing than with just a period.

Furthermore, restoring the exclamation point places Walker's poem in closer conversation with a few of our most anthologized poems. Phillis Wheatley's "To His Excellency General Washington," Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask," Claude McKay's "If We Must Die," Countee Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel," and now Walker's "For My People" all include exclamation points in the closing lines. Amiri Baraka's poem "Black Art" does not include a formal exclamation point at the end, but his capitalization of the last word "LOUD" suggests strong emphasis.

I'm pleased to have stumbled upon this new and initial way of reading the closing of "For My People."   

Margaret Walker

Social Life of DNA and the African Burial Ground

I'm looking forward to returning at some point to the African Burial Ground in New York City. Thanks to Alondra Nelson, I'll be better equipped and primed to soak in much more than I have on previous visits. Her book The Social Life of DNA provides useful information concerning the research back-story at the site.

Over the years, I've taken various groups of undergraduates to the burial ground. Some of the groups were from SIUE, and some of the groups were participants in the summer program, the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute comprised of students from various colleges. When the students and I visit, we usually concentrate on the major frame presented by the African Burial Ground.

Student photographs caption about how "oppressive laws fail to crush resistance" among enslaved people. June 2012

Student hugs fellow traveler in response to feelings visiting the African Burial Ground, June 2012.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Poetry awards and lucky breaks

It would be nice and surprising if novelists and poets acknowledged lucky breaks or good fortune during acceptance speeches for literary awards. We'd be entering a different realm if we were inclined to point out that it's not solely quality of writing that allows select writers to win while others lose. Various factors, beyond the actual writing, converge to determine why certain kinds of writers find themselves in the winner's circle more often than other kinds of writers.   

I've written about awards in black poetry, so I'll take that as a jumping off point here. I should say, though, black poetry recipients are hardly the most notable beneficiaries of luck or good fortune. There are far more award-winning white poets out there in the world. But given the subject-matter of my blog, I thought I'd start by discussing lucky breaks among black writers, especially poets.
Interestingly, the exclusion of black writers from so-called mainstream awards over the decades and last century ends up benefiting some contemporary African American poets. Agencies and institutions that historically overlooked or flat-out refused to acknowledge the contributions of black poets in the past have sometimes tried to correct those wrongs by actively seeking to include diverse poets during our contemporary era.

The existence of good writing from black poets is not new, but the willingness of various major organizations to take diversity into account is. Further, universities, particularly departments of English, are far more likely to hire black poets today than they were 20, 30, and 40 years ago. One of the most crucial aspects of lucky breaks involves where and when poets are born. It's not something you control; yet, that placement affords tremendous advantages and disadvantages.

In general, talented African American poets who were publishing volumes in the 1980s and early 1990s had less viable opportunities for winning major awards and attaining university jobs than talented poets who began publishing during the late 1990s and early 21st century. Again, the poetry today is good, but the landscape for poetry, beyond just the writing, has changed. For one, there have been shifts in judging committees. In addition, there have been steps to address racial and gendered exclusion. These factors, issues, and new or altered landscapes constitute aspects of the good fortune for some contemporary poets.     
Oh, and the some matters. A large majority of African American poets will still toil away and receive hardly any recognition for their works. In short, they won't receive enough lucky breaks. 

Often, when we talk about awards in poetry, we categorize and tally things like men vs. women or white vs. black. But what if we did the lists by economic background or social class? The findings would take us to other considerations. For instance, a rather large number of award-winning, African American poets come from notably privileged backgrounds, which seems integral to their successes.   

Acknowledgements of lucky breaks and good fortune in African American poetry should not diminish our appreciation for the hard work and many talents of award-winning poets. But an acknowledgement of the good fortune and luck will hopefully lead us to think more seriously about the defining roles of external factors, beyond the poems and beyond the control of individual poets. 

Prizes and awards in African American poetry

Blogging about Poetry in April 2016

[Related content: Blogging about Poetry]

• April 26: When a poetry scholar offers a class on Biggie, Jay Z & Nas
• April 25: "Oooowow!": the wonderful wordless phrasings of Amiri Baraka
• April 24: 50 Amiri Baraka poems on YouTube  
• April 18: Poetry Book Blurbs: Cornelius Eady's Tireless Promotional Work  
• April 18: A Notebook on Cornelius Eady
• April 16: Why the shift in poetry award juries matters
• April 13: George Packer compliments LeRoi Jones (but derides Amiri Baraka) 
• April 11: Poets as Researchers: Tyehimba Jess and Robin Coste Lewis 
• April 3: In Search of Amiri Baraka
• April 3: Amiri Baraka and Tyehimba Jess: on the Music and Musicians 
• April 2: Tyehimba Jess & Sterling Plumpp: Synthesizing the Blues
• April 1: Blogging about Poetry in March 2016

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Warmth of Other Suns: Reflections

[The Warmth of Other Suns]
Ok readers, we've reached the end of Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns. What's one idea that you found most memorable, challenging, or surprising concerning the book? Why?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Black graduation ceremony

On April 26, my colleagues Earleen Patterson and Kelly Jo Karnes and I organized a black graduation ceremony for upcoming graduates at SIUE. It was the first such ceremony in more than a decade-and-a-half at the university. It was a really wonderful event.  The photos are by SIUE university photographer Howard Ash.

Spring 2016 Programming

Notations for a common reading experience of Ta-Nehisi Coates

On May 20, I'll give a presentation at the University of Oregon focusing on Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me. I've been following Coates's work for more than a decade now, so I've been especially intrigued by the ongoing response to his new book and his overall thinking and writing.

The presentation will concentrate on:
• the pre-production history that led to Coates's book becoming a common reading selection
• crucial potential points to focus on concerning Between the World and Me
• the book's extraordinary reception
• some potential challenges and opportunities for participating in a common reading experience based on a book like Between the World and Me.
I'll provide links to various pieces on Coates and his book here, leading up to the presentation.

Notes on coverage of the book:
Common Read Projects and Between the World and Me
Coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Between the World and Me

Coates and other writers:
The curious minds of Colson Whitehead and Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Aaron McGruder & the Kitchen Sink

Accomplished black men in the arts born between 1965 - 1975

A Notebook on Ta-Nehisi Coates