Saturday, August 1, 2015

Digital Humanities at MLA, 2009 - 2015

Over the years, Mark Sample has published an annual round-up of digital humanities (DH) sessions for upcoming Modern Language Association (MLA) annual conferences. Here's a look at Sample's lists of the sessions:  
• November 23, 2014: Digital Humanities Sessions at the 2015 MLA (63 sessions)
• September 19, 2013: Digital Humanities Sessions at the 2014 MLA (78 sessions)
• October 17, 2012: Digital Humanities Sessions at the 2013 MLA (66 sessions)
• October 4, 2011: Digital Humanities Sessions at the 2012 MLA (58 sessions)
• November 9, 2010: Digital Humanities Sessions at the 2011 MLA (44 sessions)
• November 15, 2009: Digital Humanities Sessions at the 2009 MLA (27 sessions)
[Note: there was no conference in 2010; as the annual conferences switched from December meetings to January.]

For the total of  336 DH-related sessions, 6 of the sessions were devoted to African American literary and cultural topics. That is, panels devoted to African American topics constitute under 2% of DH sessions at MLA.

Digital Humanities
The Growth of Digital Humanities in Sessions and Job Ads at MLA 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Black Panther books arrive

A couple of my colleagues and I earned a grant to work with several high school black boys on an arts project, primarily focusing on African American poetry. However, since the project will also highlight imaginative activities, we're also including a comics book: The Black Panther. All of the high school participants are from Illinois, and some are from East St. Louis. Thus, I'm especially pleased to make the guys aware that the writer for The Black Panther is Reginald Hudlin, who's also from Centerville and East St. Louis.

Some of the books we purchased arrived in the mail the other day, and seeing them here together has me even more excited about working with the high school students poetry and comics in the fall.

A Notebook on Reginald Hudlin

A Notebook on Reginald Hudlin

• July 31: Black Panther books arrive

• September 9: Django Unchained (the comic book series)
• January 16: From Black Panther to Django Unchained (comic books) 

• August 6: Kyle Baker, Reginald Hudlin, and Rob Guillory 
• July 3: Catching up on Reginald Hudlin's Black Panther

Thursday, July 30, 2015

From Baldwin to Morrison & Coates: a brief history of endorsements

In the extensive coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, Toni Morrison's blurb for the book and author has drawn considerable attention. Morrison's powerful appraisal of Coates reminded me of that career-defining endorsement she received from a group of black writers during the late 1980s.

James Baldwin's funeral took place on December 8, 1987, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. After the services, several African American writers and cultural workers gathered together and expressed their discontent that talented black literary artists like Baldwin could produce extraordinary compositions and remain under-acknowledged. Channeling their anger, a group of 48 black poets, novelists, cultural workers, including Maya Angelou, Houston Baker, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., June Jordan, Eleanor Traylor, Quincy Troupe, Alice Walker, Mary Helen Washington, and Eugene B. Redmond composed and signed a letter, which they submitted to The New York Times.

The letter, which appeared in the January 24, 1988, issue of the Times, bemoaned the fact that the recently departed:
Baldwin never received the honor of these keystones to the canon of American literature: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize: never. And so we have buried this native son, Jimmy Baldwin, with a grief that goes beyond our sorrow at his death. We also grieve for every black artist who survives him in this freedom land. We grieve because we cannot yet assure that such shame, such national neglect will not occur again, and then again.
 The letter then pivoted to the urgency of supporting another novelist, whom the letter writers felt was being overlooked: 
Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: she has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. We, the undersigned black critics and black writers, here assert ourselves against such oversight and harmful whimsy.
Morrison had lost the National Book Award for Beloved earlier in the year, but, in retrospect, many commentators believe that the letter produced by those 48 writers assisted in influencing the Pulitzer committee to award Morrison for her novel in 1988. She went on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Just as important, teachers and scholars apparently took notice of the sentiments expressed in that 1988 letter to the Times by those 48 black writers.

By the early 1990s, the scholarly discourse on Morrison's work had began to dramatically pick up steam. In a relatively small amount of time, Morrison became our most critically acclaimed black writer. The widespread scholarly interest and major award-winning status of her work were routed to that January 1988 letter in the Times.

Fast forward to 2015. 

"I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died," writes Morrison for the back-cover book blurb for Between the World and Me. "Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." By reflecting on the death of Baldwin in her blurb, Morrison had returned to the figure whose passing had previously inspired 48 black writers to endorse and thus greatly advance appraisals of her work.    

Toni Morrison
 • Between Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates
Notes on coverage of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me
A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Monday, July 27, 2015

A convergence of scholars, artists, and scholar-artists

Kathy Lou Schultz dropping knowledge about the Afro-Modernist Epic

One advantage, among many, with an NEH Institute like Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement is the convergence of a large group of accomplished presenters (scholars, artists, and scholar-artist). At the institute in Lawrence, Kansas, we hosted Joanne Gabbin, Tyehimba Jess, Stephanie J. Fitzgerald, Megan Kaminski, Brenda Marie Osbey, Lauri Ramey, Kathy Lou Schultz, James Smethurst, Frank X. Walker, Jerry W. Ward, Jr., and Kevin Young. And listen: that was just week 1.

No really. That was just the warm up? That was the warm up.

Smethurst was talking the geographies of African American poetry pre-1960s and onward. Schultz was talking epic poetry from Melvin B. Tolson to Langston Hughes to Amiri Baraka. Just having those two would've been enough. But we had more.

Tyehimba Jess gives a reading during the institute.

We had readings from Kevin Young and Brenda Maria Osbey and from the super sonic poetic possibility known as Tyehimba Jess. We had Ward talking through the poetry of Charlie Braxton, Asili Ya Nadhiri, Bob Kaufman, and others.   

It stands out to me that folks like Schultz, Ward, and Young, to name a few, are very much scholar-artists or artist-scholars. What that means on the ground-level is that they have insider-views on composing literary art and on producing scholarship in the field of African American literary studies. Combine those multiple perspectives with all the other artists and scholars, and we're talking about a remarkable, multi-directional, collective composition. 

A Notebook on Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A poetry room of their own

Thanks to the organizational and enterprising efforts of Maryemma Graham, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) agreed to fund Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement -- an institute that responds to the "resurgence of interest in contemporary poetry, its expanded production and wide circulation." I  participated in the first week of the institute. Among other things, what's really important about the project is the diverse gathering, in a single room, of sharp-minded scholars, artists, and cultural workers devoted to concentrating on the study of African American poetry.

That gathering includes the active thinkers Keisha Watson, Kevin Quashie, and the good sister-scholar Joycelyn Moody raising questions about black poetry in a common space -- a space also populated by black studies director Tara T. Green and current National Council for Black Studies president Georgene Bess Montgomery. 

In that same room, you have poets Laura Smith, Cindy King, and Tara Betts as well as scholars Richard Schur, Deborah Mix, Jené Schoenfeld, "the" P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim J. Donahue, and the Robert Hayden scholar Derik Smith. Some of the folks -- like Cameron Leader-Picone and Micky New -- are making links to poetry and music, while Dennis López, Claire Schwartz, and Bartholomew Brinkman are making the print culture connections. And if that wasn't enough, we have these wise-beyond-their-years emergent poetry scholars Laura Vrana, J. Peter Moore, and Sequoia Maner alongside artist-scholars Candice Pitts and Tamara Hollins alongside the multi-talented cultural worker, teacher, artist Monifa Love Asante.

Did I mention we've somehow managed to get all these folks to agree to meet in the same room to read and talk about and listen to black poetry over the course of two weeks? Did I mention that gatherings like these happen too infrequently, that they're hard to come by?

But there they were mixing it up, studying poetry, in a room of their own.

A Notebook on Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement

Kent Foreman, Tyehimba Jess, and the histories of spoken poetry

"I am a spoken poet, that is, my poetry was written to be heard as opposed to being read. It is the oldest literary tradition there is."  --Kent Foreman
One of the most important poetry lessons for me at the NEH Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement Institute did not occur during the day-time sessions. Instead, it was far into the night on Thursday when Tyehimba Jess insisted that I take a look at readings on YouTube by the late Kent Foreman.  

It had been a long day. I was tired. But Jess felt it was important, essential even for me to consider Foreman's work and think through some of the challenges or questions his poetry and style of presentation or performance pose.

Foreman has this conversational or speakerly, for lack of better words, performance style. You can listen to him and know that he's performing a poem, but at the same time, how he's speaking comes off as if he's some cat on the streets kicking knowledge. That effect is heightened by the fact that Foreman reads recites many his works.

Since rhymed words lend themselves to song and remembrance, it's not surprising that we encounter rhymes throughout Foreman's poems. Also, those rhymes correspond to a sense of playfulness -- check out, for instance, his haiku "Epiphany" and "Raison D’Etre" -- and his versions of word play correspond to short poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Henry Dumas, as well as Amiri Baraka's low coup.  Foreman delves into folk, persona, and bad man figures in his John Henry poem "Hammer Song" and also in his poem "From Jonathan to David,"  where he takes on the first-person perspective of Jonathan talking to David.

The way Foreman has us listening in on a conversation between these "soul brothers" Jonathan and David reminded me of one of my all-time favorite poems "1912: Blind Lemon Jefferson Explaining to Leadbelly" by Jess. In both poems, Foreman and Jess position us to overhear one brother sharing with another. The transference of the knowledge is plainly spoken and poetic.  

A Notebook on Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement
Tyehimba Jess

Paratexts and the Race for History Among Contemporary Black Poets

To really get a sense of the distinctive ways that contemporary volumes of poetry by African Americans are intensifying the focus on history, you might check out some of the paratexts associated with the books. Paratexts refer to the surrounding materials beyond the apparent main content of works by writers such as:
Book covers
Table of contents
Book blurbs
Works cited
Photographs and illustrations
Timelines and chronologies
Marilyn Nelson's book Carver: a life in poems (2001), which focuses on George Washington Carver, includes historical photographs and even reproductions of 1943 and 1998 stamps featuring the famous scientist.  Those documents accentuate the degrees to which the volume is an official document charting the history of Carver's life. Toward the end of the book (after and beyond the last poem), the "photography credits" page lists sources of the book's images: Tuskegee University Archives, National Park Service, Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, George Washington Carver National Monument, Iowa State University, National Archives, and the Library of Congress.