Tuesday, July 9, 2019
The long road to an NEH Frederick Douglass Institute at SIUE
Our arrival at this NEH Frederick Douglass Institute was years in the making. I'm talking several false starts and failed attempts, and successful participation in various projects, which proved foundational in retrospect.
So much of what I've done with NEH begins with Maryemma Graham. First, in 2004, she invited me to serve as East St. Louis/SIUE Site Facilitator for her NEH grant, "The Langston Hughes National Poetry Project." But it was in 2010 when I participated in my first NEH project for school teachers. Graham directed a summer institute, "Making the Wright Connection" on Richard Wright's Native Son, Black Boy and Uncle Tom’s Children. It took place at the University of Kansas.
In 2012, Lovalerie King directed an NEH Institute at Pennsylvania State University, "Contemporary African American Literature.” I served as a presenter. And in 2013 and 2015, I served as a faculty resident for institutes that Graham organized related to African American poetry.
Every February beginning in 2013 up until 2018, I submitted an application to direct an NEH Institute. The first 5 attempts failed. I took a look at the feedback each time and tried to regroup. The sixth time was a success.
I was always disappointed and annoyed when I received the rejections, but I was not completely deterred from submitting again. A small culture of submitting grants had emerged among a group of us at SIUE. Moreover, my key grants administrator, Teri Gulledge, was assisting me on the difficulties of budgets and other hard-to-navigate aspects of grant websites. Her expertise made it fairly easy for me to submit and re-submit. So I did it again and again and again.
My initial two attempts for an institute concentrated on digital resources and the subject of Afrofuturism. However, I made shifts. In 2013 and 2014, I gained two new colleagues, Tisha Brooks and Elizabeth Cali, respectively. They are both specialists in 19th-century African American literature.
[Related: From Richard Wright and Amiri Baraka to Frederick Douglass]
Collaborating with them on projects, and just as important, pushing for regular, extended conversations about our courses reminded me that we had strengths and overlapping interests in several key black authors. Working with Brooks and Cali and then thinking back to Graham's Wright institute made Frederick Douglass an obvious choice for me.
Brooks, Cali, and I submitted our first application focused on Douglass in early 2015. We failed to win approval, and we studied the feedback. We tried again for the next few years, making adjustments and re-arrangements. And finally, in the summer of 2018, we got the "congratulations" call we'd been waiting on for years.
• A notebook on Frederick Douglass and Literary Crossroads NEH Institute