Wednesday, May 22, 2019

20 years of Colson Whitehead and counting

In a couple of weeks, Colson Whitehead will release his ninth book and seventh novel, The Nickel Boys. He's given us two decades of really inventive, powerful, and clever work. It says a lot about his consistency that convincing arguments can be made on both sides about whether his best novels are his early ones, The Intuitionist (1999) and John Henry Days (2001) or his latest ones, The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys.

To acknowledge the 20 years since his debut as a novelist, I assigned The Intuitionist in one of the courses I taught this past semester. I began reading Whitehead's first novel in 2002, a year after it was published. At the time, I was in my first year of graduate school.

I recall being really intrigued by hims as a writer after reading his first novel. And when John Henry Days came out, just a year or so later, I was really hooked. I was pleased by the reception to his work, as I got a chance to check out other takes on his works as well.

At different points, Whitehead published two non-novels. On the one hand, he produced The Colossus of New York (2003), a series of writing where he's offering a multitude of perspectives on the city. Later, he wrote, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death (2014) about his participation in the World Series of Poker.

Whitehead gained a much wider following with the publication of The Underground Railroad. The book was selected by Oprah Winfrey and praised by President Barack Obama, ensuring that it received significant national attention. Oh yeah, the novel also won a National Book Award for Fiction and a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In the autograph line after a reading that Whitehead gave in St. Louis in September 2016, a woman noticed me carrying his various books and asked me the question that my family and friends have learned to avoid: "what's your favorite book by him?" For some strange reason, when people ask that question, what I hear is, "Dear sir, I have nothing better to do with my time right now, so won't you please offer summaries about each and every one of Whitehead's books in the order that they were published?" I painstakingly oblige.

When the woman first posed the question (request), we were at the end of an extended autograph line. Some time later as I was wrapping up my discussion of The Underground Railroad, we were at the signing table.   

As a long-time reader of Whitehead's work, The Underground Railroad surprised me. He had been well-known for composing humorous narratives, filled with all kinds of jokes and funny moments. But, he understandably took on a much more serious tone in his novel about slavery.

Similar to The Underground Railroad, this newest book, The Nickel Boys also has a serious tone. The narrative, set primarily during the 1960s, highlights the abuse inflicted on boys at a reform school in Florida. The Nickel Boys is the result of Whitehead utilizing terrible injustices as a jumping off point for an important story.

For years, as a salute to Whitehead's creativity, observers have noted that he "never writes the same story twice." That sentiment definitely came to mind as I read The Nickel Boys and reflected on all of Whitehead's previous books. I certainly had no idea that the person writing a book about elevator inspectators and junketeers all those years ago would be writing about zombies, a real underground railway system, and now a troubling reform school.

Colson Whitehead

Friday, May 17, 2019

African American literary studies, grant writing, and productivity

Books for a grant-funded reading group, 2009

A little while back, I noticed some debates about this article “Productivity, prominence, and the effects of academic environment,” where the authors point out that faculty work environments shape a variety of outcomes. Some of the discussions about the article led me to think about how my own environment had affected aspects of my productivity.

Since I started working at my university in fall 2003, I’ve applied, as lead, on about 53 grants. In addition, I’ve been included on about another dozen or so grants as a contributor. My numbers are perhaps high for a literature scholar, but I rank low among my colleagues in STEM, who are socialized to apply even more.

Two major things happened in 2003 that prepared me to apply to grants during the course of my career.
1.) Senior African American literature scholar Maryemma Graham from the University of Kansas began including me on her grant projects. No other scholar in our field, except maybe Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has been as successful as Graham earning major grants from the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) and other agencies.

2.) My university had an active grants training program and culture. They offered workshops and other incentives for applying to grants. There were a couple of officers on the pre-award side of the grants office who encouraged me to apply to various awards. They helped and sometimes guided me with the tricky aspects of budgets and other items.

In retrospect, combining Graham’s assistance with the internal assistance I was receiving ensured that I would think about grants and public programming projects that was not natural in the field of African American literary studies. A couple of my colleagues in the English department were also actively applying for grants, so that solidified my interest in the practice as well.

The environment I was working in was crucial for my productivity with grant writing.

Humanities grants and the Graham Effect
Grant writing and the Teri/Patience Effect
NEH Summer Institute: Frederick Douglass and Literary Crossroads

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

What kind of poetry is most popular?

Poets and those of us who perform the roles of poetry ambassadors sometimes feel obligated to mention that everyone's reading poetry these days. "Poetry Is More Popular Than Ever, According To A New Report From The National Arts Endowment," read the headline of an article last year. We've seen similar pieces, highlighting the interest in poetry.

In addition, poets regularly mention the public's fondness for verse. "I read some statistics recently that more people are reading poetry in America now than in many, many years," said Natasha Trethewey in a recent interview.

What's not mentioned as much in the coverage on poetry is that many other things -- movies, sports, comic books, veganism, etc. -- are more popular today than ever before as well. There's also some silence about the different kinds of poetry that are most popular. Is it rhymed or free verse poetry? Award-winning poetry? Spoken word poetry? Instagram poetry? Rap?

Many people are now willing to concede that rap is poetry. But, we also notice important differences. When I label my courses "poetry," students are far less interested in those than they are in my "rap" courses. By and large, the young black women in my literature classes prefer spoken word poetry, accessed via YouTube, over the ostensible print-based poets we cover. 

But in the surveys I've conducted with the students, they prefer other modes of writing (Instagram captions, Twitter memes, short stories, novels, essays, news articles on select topics) over poetry. That's not to say they dislike poetry or that they've not read it. They just tend to prefer those other modes, notwithstanding exceptions here and there, when given a choice.

I don't teach in an MFA program, so I'm not obligated to privilege poetry in my courses. I do so, though, because I enjoy thinking, talking, reading, and blogging about a variety of subjects and debates related to African American verse in particular. I wish there was a little more funding related to poetry programming, but as it stands, the more active financial investments with poetry go toward awards, fellowships, and retreats. The focus is on artists not readers.

The good news and the trouble with black poetry

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Spring 2019 programming

• January 23: Week 1
• February 6: Week 2
• February 13: Public Thinking Event (Great Migration exhibit)
• February 20: Week 3
• February 27: Week 4
• March 6: Week 5
• March 19: Week 6
• March 20: Public Thinking Event (Haiku exercise)
• April 2: Week 7
• April 3: Public Thinking Event (diversity and equity/inequity)
• April 9: Week 8
• April 23: Week 9
• April 30: Week 10:
• April 30: Eugene B. Redmond Writers Club Reading
• May 1: Public Thinking Event (group work and group projects at SIUE)

Ongoing activity:
Spring 2019--Haley Reading Groups

Public Programming

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Dexter Soy and Veronica Gandini on Batman and the Outsiders

We definitely haven't said enough about how diversity efforts in comics creates all kinds of cool opportunities for collaboration among artists.  Consider Batman and the Outsiders #1 written by Bryan Hill, Dexter Soy, and Veronica Gandini.

I've written about Hill's work elsewhere, and I'll take up his writing on these series later. For now, I wanted to note the powerful visual artwork. Soy and Gandini worked together on an issue of Captain Marvel back in 2012. Later, they worked on issues of Justice League Beyond 2.0, Batman Beyond Universe, Mortal Kombat X, and Red Hood/Arsenal. They did their longest run together on Red Hood and the Outlaws.

Batman and the Outsiders brings Soy and Gandini together again, this time to depict a superhero team comprised primarily of people of color. This current iteration of the Outsiders includes Black Lightning, Katana, Duke Thomas (Signal), and Cassandra Cain (Orphan).

Soy draws multiple action dramatic action sequences in this first issue, showcasing his considerable talents. Gandini offers an assortment of color combinations throughout the issue, driven in part by the different kinds of heroes. The blues and light for Black Lightning. Hues of yellow/gold and black for Signal. A certain darkness for Batman. A ferocious explosion at the beginning.

Soy employs multiple angles that captivated me. Early on, he shows a a character being hurled over an overpass onto a gas tanker. Later, we have an aerial view above Batman as he's departing via grapple gun, and below him on the roof of a building are the assembled Outsiders team.

Much of the issue has a shadowy tone that coincides with the traditional feel of Gotham City. Yet, Gandini adds all these pops of color, readjusting the moods. The variety from brights to dark might be the really moving aspect of her work here.

So often with comics, as I'm doing here, we try to note the artist and colorist contributions separately. But truth be told, we regularly experience their artistry together. We don't see the drawings and colors in the linear or one-at-a-time ways that we write about them. Instead, we see a combination, or rather a convergence of artistic work by collaborators like Soy and Gandini. 

A notebook on comic books

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Black Graduation Celebration Spring 2019

What an event. On May 7, my colleagues Kelly Jo Karnes, Timothy Staples, Earleen Patterson, and I, along with assistance several other people and funding from the Office of Student Affairs, organized the black graduation celebration for upcoming graduates at SIUE. This was our 6th one. It was also our largest with 204 participating undergraduates and graduate students.

This year, we had African drumming to lead the processional. Undergraduate Braxton McCarroll gave the student speech. Staples, director of the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, offered words of wisdom to the graduates. Christopher Malone offered a song, and Naja Gbala wrote and performed a song, "Black Graudation" for the occasion. It was a wonderful event.

The photos are by SIUE university photographer Howard Ash.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Scenes from the East St. Louis Digital Humanities Club, Spring 2019

A collection of images from our after-school digital humanities club in spring 2019.

Week 1: January 23

Week 2: February 6

Week 3: February 20

Congratulations to Jaylen, one of our lead DH club members

Jaylen listens to an audio composition he produced, fall 2017

Since the creation of our Digital Humanities Club in fall 2017, one of our students, Jaylen, has been an active member, attending a majority of the sessions the last two years. He graduates in a couple of weeks, so we won't roll with us next year. It's worth noting, though, how much our program benefited from his presence.

Although we experimented with various kinds of software, Jaylen excelled when we utilized audio mixing programs like Audacity. He arrived with to our club with extensive knowledge about music and expertise on audio production. So he zipped through the initial exercises I developed.

Jaylen working on graphic design project, Spring 2018