Tuesday, August 30, 2016

How do we get from Gwendolyn Brooks to Mahogany L. Browne?

Last week, on the opening day of one of my African American literature classes, I gave the students a preview of the opportunity that awaits us. First, we listened to the poem "A Song in the Front Yard." Next, we listened to another poem, "Black Girl Magic." After that, the big question before us was this: How did we get from the sound of Gwendolyn Brooks to the sound of Mahogany L. Browne?

We're spending the next several weeks formulating answers. And more questions.

We want to come to terms with the ways Brooks and Browne converge and diverge as poets reading their works. Of course, we'll be listening to multiple voices along this journey. Margaret Walker. Maya Angelou. Sonia Sanchez. Lucille Clifton. Nikki Giovanni. Kelly Norman Ellis. Tracie Morris. Evie Shockley. Nicki Minaj. Beyoncé. And so forth.

We'll consider what collective sounds over the last 50 years may have entered the creative domains of spoken poetry to contribute to the sonic aesthetics of black women performing poems or raps. By the way, what are the routes folks travel to get from reading to performing poems?

The journey from Brooks to Browne is filled with all kinds of exciting sounds, artistic decisions, and varying delivery styles. I'm looking forward to traveling and charting some routes with my crew.
An African American literature course: Recordings of black women reading poetry (Fall 2016) 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Divergent receptions: Ta-Nehisi Coates & Colson Whitehead

As a literary scholar, it's a good feeling when a writer you've been studying for years finally receives widespread attention. I experienced that feeling last year with the tremendous response to Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (2015). And I'm experiencing the feeling again as I track the coverage of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad (2016). 

There's a lot in common about the receptions of Coates and Whitehead. Two New York City-based, black men writers of a certain generation receive an abundance of praises for their works. In addition, their books were endorsed by two prominent women--Toni Morrison for Coates and Oprah Winfrey for Whitehead. Within weeks of publications, their books ascended to the top of the New York Times best seller list.

There are still many divergences in the coverage. While dozens of reviewers chimed in on Between the World and Me and The Underground Railroad, responses to Whitehead's book have remained largely confined to the world of contemporary literature. The reviewers for his book are primarily people who have always reviewed fiction. 

By comparison, Coates's book attracted a far more eclectic group of reviewers: journalists, cultural commentators, professors, entertainers, and others. There were also lively debates about the implications of Coates's work. Some wondered, for instance, does Coates do enough to address the concerns of black women? Others were vexed about this, that, this, and that concerning "white audience" and liberal adulation for Coates (i.e. David Brooks wrote a piece entitled "Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White").
How do we account for the divergent receptions of Coates and Whitehead?

For one, I think, there is simply less wide-ranging interest in African American fiction than in African American nonfiction. Second and related, commentators and media coverage apparently elevate African American literary artists and African American nonfiction writers in different ways. Whitehead is presented as an exceedingly talented novelist, while coverage of Coates suggests that he is a leading spokesperson on race in America.

Third, market forces and societal concerns matter. Between the World and Me fulfilled an important void for audiences looking to read a thoughtful perspective related to the ongoing national conversation about violence against black bodies in this country. Further, Coates's book is presented as superb at illuminating problems concerning race and racism. Accordingly, Between the World and Me is a popular selection for university common reading programs and church reading groups. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Colson Whitehead

Friday, August 26, 2016

C. Liegh McInnis's books

I was writing about C. Liegh McInnis's productivity recently. Here's a list of his productions over the years.

Matters of Reality:  Body, Mind, and Soul (1997, 2007)
Confessions:  Brainstormin' from Midnight 'til Dawn (1998, 2007)
Searchin’ for Psychedelica (1999, 2007)
Da Black Book of Linguistic Liberation (2001, 2007)

Short stories
Scripts:  Sketches and Tales of Urban Mississippi (1998, 2007)
The Lyrics of Prince (1997, 2000, 2007)
Prose:  Essays and Letters  (1999, 2007)
Brother Hollis: The Sankofa of a Movement Man (2015) with Hollis Watkins

Editorial work
Black Magnolias: A Literary Journal (2001 - 2014)

Audio CDs
Poetic Conversations (2001-2008)
Introduction of a Blues Poet (2001-2008)

For more  information, see his website.

C. Liegh McInnis

The Inspiring Productivity of C. Liegh McInnis

A glimpse of productions by C. Liegh McInnis

As an undergraduate  at Tougaloo College in the late 1990s, I was fortunate to look beyond the school and explore some of the arts projects taking place around Jackson, Mississippi. Somehow I stumbled onto the activities of C. Liegh McInnis. At the time, as an undergrad, I only witnessed him presenting his poetry at some of the local sets. I had a vague sense that he was producing a poetry book here and there.

When I departed for Pennsylvania State University in 1999, I reminded myself to continue following McInnis works from afar. Since that time, I tracked his work and was deeply inspired by his high level of productivity over the years. Volumes of poetry, a book of short stories, a collection of essays, a book on Prince, audio cds of poetry readings, production and editorial work with his magazine Black Magnolias (2001-2014). Editor/collaborator for the autobiography of a Civil Rights activist. McInnis does it all.

McInnis has published essays, a book of short stories, and an examination of lyrics by Prince.

In many respects, studying McInnis was an important early gateway into several other artists producing across multiple genres such as Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, Carolyn Rodgers, Kevin Young, Elizabeth Alexander, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Perhaps those figures are more widely known in African American critical discourse. For me however, McInnis, more than many others, excelled in the art of possible.           

Without a local model in my mind like McInnis, I could have hardly had the motivation to pursue various self-publishing enterprises, like this blog. You can keep the ideas and creative energy bottled up somewhere in private. Or, you could always pull a C. Liegh McInnis.

Recently, I was expressing a little frustration with some artists and those of us in African American literary studies. I was irritated and wondering if we were doing too little for readers and audiences. But maybe I was being unfair. What if I hadn't lucked up and discovered a figure like McInnis at an early point of my career? Wouldn't my view of the possible be infinitely smaller?

A few of McInnis's poetry books
Although I first encountered McInnis on the spoken word scene as an undergraduate, I later learned that he self-published his poetry as well. He initially published those books in the late 1990s and then released updated editions of the books in 2000 and 2007. 

A prolific and multidimensional writer, McInnis published essays and short stories. He also produced a scholarly book on Prince. In graduate school, I started reading Amiri Baraka's writings on jazz artists and Greg Tate's writing on a range of artists as well. But McInnis was one of the first literary artists I encountered who produced extensive analyses on a musician.

Issues of Black Magnolias

For over a decade, McInnis led the production and editing of Black Magnolias--an arts journal with a black and southern focus. I first began receiving copies of the journal while I was a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University. I continued subscribing and reading when I moved to St. Louis. I was intrigued to see McInnis showcase his skills beyond poetry and nonfiction writer by demonstrating that he was also a highly capable publisher/editor.

Most recently, McInnis collaborated with Hollis Watkins on the production of Brother Hollis: The Sankofa of a Movement Man (2015). So again, he takes on the role of editor, arranger, transcriber, and "author" of a different sort. And yet again, he provides a model for what's possible and necessary. 

Reading Brother Hollis: The Sankofa of a Movement Man
C. Liegh McInnis

Reading Brother Hollis: The Sankofa of a Movement Man

Recently, I've been reading Brother Hollis: The Sankofa of a Movement Man (2015) by Hollis Watkins with C. Liegh McInnis. Watkins was born in Lincoln County, Mississippi, in 1941, and became active in the modern Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. In particular, he was an organizer for theStudent Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Brother Hollis details his upbringing and chronicles his involvement in "the Movement."

Watkins offers an in-depth inside look at efforts of civil rights groups to address injustices. He and his fellow organizers spent time planning projects, participating in sit-in demonstrations, and registering black voters.  His details of people, places, and activities presents a really complex look at the Movement (and its many embedded movements). 

The Movement was clearly an ever intense series of moments, as organizers faced constant threats and acts of violence. At one point, Watkins describes a time when he and a group of organizers who had been arrested were transported from a city jail to a county jail. A "mob" of white people had gathered to taunt and harass the activists as they were prepared for transport. Watkins observes that:
Walking through that mob was like walking through a swirling, angry gathering of wasps, looking to sting this black thing that had invaded their nest. The tunnel through the center of the mob was narrow, and the two police officers seemed to disappear into the mob as their hands or the hands that guided me through the tunnel appeared to be the limbs from the angry mob pushing and pulling me along the trail of the shrinking tunnel. It was hot and noisy. The threats and insults from the mob seemed as fiery tongs licking and slashing my face and body (87).
So often, the Civil Rights Movement is presented as these joyous events of young activists locking arms and singing. There was that. But, Watkins's book also attests that the Movement was as horrifying as being trapped in a nest of angry wasps. 

Watkins's book is "with C. Liegh McInnis," an editor and literary artist whose works I've followed for years now. I was pleased to see that he extended his tireless productivity by collaborating on the production of this project.   

The Inspiring Productivity of C. Liegh McInnis 
C. Liegh McInnis

Monday, August 22, 2016

An Af-Am lit. course: Recordings of black women reading poetry

The students in the class will receive flash drives containing all of the poems.  

The primary texts for one of my African American literature courses this semester will be audio recordings. The students in my class -- all first-year black women college students -- will cover over 60 poems by more than 25 black women poets. We'll listen to Elizabeth Alexander, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, Tracie Morris, Harryette Mullen, Sonia Sanchez, Evie Shockley, and more.

We'll take note off what it means to experience the poetry audibly, not just on the page. We'll also take the time to distinguish differences between black women poets and black women poets.

How do we get from Gwendolyn Brooks to Mahogany L. Browne?
List of audio recordings by black women poets and lyricists
Situating the bold & bodacious poetic voice of Mahogany L. Browne
Can the sounds of black women's poetic voices get a witness?
African American Literature @ SIUE

Additional Fall 2016 courses:
An African American lit. course: "Hip Hop & Black Consciousness"
An African American literature course on Ta-Nehisi Coates  

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

An African American lit. course: "Hip Hop & Black Consciousness"

[The course description for my ENG 343 course this semester.]

"My emancipation don't fit your equation.” —Lauryn Hill

“I'm like Che Guevara with bling on, I'm complex
I never claimed to have wings on
[Ninja], I get my ‘by any means’ on…” —Jay Z

Listen. You already know what this class is about: the ways hip hop folks infuse ideas associated with Malcolm X, struggles for liberation, and serious knowledge into the culture. You know the deal too: we’ll listen to, analyze, and discuss works by Nas, Lauryn, Jay Elect, Kendrick, B.I.G. K.R.I.T, Dre 3000, and obviously the “God” (Rakim). In the process of thinking about black consciousness in hip hop, we’ll seek to enhance our own consciousness. You down?


An African American literature course: Recordings of black women reading poetry (Fall 2016) 
An African American literature course on Ta-Nehisi Coates  (Fall 2016)
African American Literature @ SIUE 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

An African American literature course on Ta-Nehisi Coates

This semester, I'm teaching a course focusing on Ta-Nehisi Coates. The class will be comprised of first-year black men college students.  We'll take a look at a sampling of Coates's blog entries, his article "The Case for Reparations," his book Between the World and Me, and his first story arc for the Black Panther comic book. 

I've taught writings by Coates in the past, but this is the first time I'm devoting a full class to his works. In various classes some years ago, my students and I covered Coates's The Beautiful Struggle (2008). Every now and then in classes, I brought in some of his blog entries, and one of my classes covered Between the World and Me when it came out last year. 

This course will give me an opportunity to introduce a group of guys to an important black writer, and at the same time, we'll get to consider several related writers as well as a wide range of topics and different modes of creative communication like blogging and comic book writing.

I'll run entries here about what the course entails as well as some of my observations of what we're covering.

Ta-Nehisi Coates
An African American literature course: Recordings of black women reading poetry (Fall 2016)  
An African American lit. course: "Hip Hop & Black Consciousness" (Fall 2016)
African American Literature @ SIUE