Friday, July 12, 2019
From Richard Wright and Amiri Baraka to Frederick Douglass
Someone asked me how I decided to work with a group to produce an NEH Summer Institute on Frederick Douglass, and my mind ran in a couple of directions. On the one hand, I thought about the long journey of failed attempts to produce a successful NEH application. On the other hand, I begin thinking about my work in African American literary studies and my early engagements with two writers in particular.
In the fall of 1996, as an undergraduate at Tougaloo College, I took a couple with the scholar Jerry W. Ward, Jr., on Richard Wright. It was my first African American literature course and my first major authors course, though I didn't think of the course with those terms, not at all. But back then, I was unknowingly being convinced about the value of concentrated study on a single author.
Later, as a graduate student at Penn State University, I worked with the scholar and poet William J. Harris. From our first meeting in 1999 to our most recent conversations in 2019, we engaged in a long, winding, never-ending conversation about this far out figure named Amiri Baraka. Our Baraka talks confirmed the possibility of wrestling with a complex literary artist and activist, whose works linked to multiple genres, art forms, and political movements.
I've often looked back on the implications of studying with Ward and Harris. Their artistic and scholarly commitments and extended experiences examining the lives and works of these two focal subjects shaped so much of my own trajectories. Some years later, after I became a college professor, I created a Toni Morrison course at my university. I was inspired, of course, by the example of my two professors.
Although I first began submitting applications for an NEH institute in 2013, it was not until 2015 that I shifted my proposals to Douglass. Ward and Harris had unknowingly provided me with a tremendous foundation and model for what we might call "major black author studies." They hardly knew or imagined that on the lower frequencies their courses on Richard Wright and Amiri Baraka paved the way for a summer institute on Frederick Douglass.
• A notebook on Frederick Douglass and Literary Crossroads NEH Institute