Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Legacy Work, the Toni Morrison Society, and Thornwillow Press

Image from Thornwillow Press video

On June 15, the Toni Morrison Society (TMS) and Thornwillow Press hosted an event for members of the Society and people interested in book production to discuss the upcoming publication of editions of Song of Solomon that the press is producing

The event consisted of remarks from TMS founder Carolyn Denard and Thornwillow founder Luke Pontifell. Denard, who founded the society in 1993, discussed her experiences working with Morrison and the TMS over the decades. She noted that since Morrison's passing in 2019, the TMS had shifted to the mission of "legacy work" -- coordinating projects and activities to honor the memory and contributions of one of our greatest authors. 

In 1985, Pontifell started Thornwillow Press, which specializes in letterpress printing, engraving, and custom bookbinding. Over the decades, the press has produced ninety unique editions of various publications, including works by Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Perkins, Virginia Woolf, Frederick Douglass, and Octavia Butler.

It turns out that Pontifell had an encounter with Morrison on the subject of book publishing over three decades ago. There was a book launch party for one of the titles he was publishing, and Morrison was in attendance. She and Pontifell spoke, and she asked him how he chose his selections. 

He recalled the moment, and said he stumbled through an answer. Morrison told him, he said, "what you print matters." That was the 1980s. Fast forward to today, and Thornwillow is preparing to produce an additional work by Morrison. Earlier this year, the press produced a book edition of Morrison's short story "Recitatif."  

Image of Morrison will appear as frontispiece of Thornwillow Press edition

It's quite fitting that we will now have two expertly crafted editions of works by Morrison. During the event, Denard, and TMS president Dana Williams offered comments about how invested Morrison was in the production of books. Morrison was a former book editor, and she was involved in all aspects of the publishing from selecting authors, to editing, to production, to promotion. 

Denard recalled how Morrison told her how she kept prompting her publisher to redo the cover for Love (2003) until they got the color on the cover just right. Williams discussed letters that Morrison wrote to black women novelists that she was working with during the 1970s about the production of their books. Williams shows that the editor-novelist's correspondence reveals her attentiveness to a variety of issues pertaining to production. For Morrison, what and how you print matters.  

At one point, Pontifell mentioned the relationship between book production and canonicity. He was on target as the availability of literary texts does have an effect on whether those works will be widely read and revered. There is always the matter of continuous engagement: reprinting, discussing, writing about, and re-presenting literary compositions so that further editions are deemed necessary. Put another way, so much depends on the nature of legacy work. 


Note: The Thornwillow Kickstarter project for Song of Solomon concludes on June 23, 2021, so you would need to subscribe before then in order to retain an edition. 


Thursday, June 3, 2021

MLK, Malcolm, The Nickel Boys, and creative inspiration

Among other things, the two central characters in The Nickel Boys had me thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. We often view MLK and Malcolm as two somewhat opposing black perspectives. And the lead figures Turner and Elwood in Whitehead's novel bring those two to mind.

Elwood comes off as optimistic and na├»ve while Turner seems more cynical and skeptical. They are both in similar positions and become friends, yet their differences raises useful tension in the book. 

Malcolm and MLK are hardly opposites, but for decades now, people have put further an either/or narrative about the two figures. King is associated with non-violent civil rights, and Malcolm represented with his militancy and "by any means necessary" rhetoric. 

What if Malcolm and MLK had been confined to a school for boys in their youth? That's one way that we could read The Nickel Boys. Of course, MLK even has a presence in the book, as Elwood listens to and is captivated by recordings of King's speeches. 

There's a long history of charting tensions between noted black men. Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.  Marcus Garvey and Du Bois. Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright. Nas and Jay-Z. 

Whitehead advances that kind of history by presenting tensions between these two boys. Aaron McGruder presented even younger boys with his lead characters Huey and Riley. Representing two black male characters with tensions gives writers opportunities to creatively explore a variety of ideas. 


Colson Whitehead and productivity

1999 - The Intuitionist (hardcover)
2000 - The Intuitionist (paperback)
2001 - John Henry Days (hardcover)
2002 - John Henry Days (paperback)
2003 - The Colossus of New York: A City in 13 Parts (hardcover)
2004 - The Colossus of New York: A City in 13 Parts (paperback)
2006 - Apex Hides the Hurt (hardcover)
2007 - Apex Hides the Hurt (paperback)
2009 - Sag Harbor  (hardcover)
2010 - Sag Harbor  (paperback)
2011 - Zone One  (hardcover)
2012 - Zone One (paperback) 
2014 - The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death (hardcover)
2015 The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death (paperback)
2016 - The Underground Railroad (hardcover)
2018 - The Underground Railroad (paperback)
2019 - The Nickel Boys (hardcover)
2020 The Nickel Boys (paperback)
2021 - Harlem Shuffle (forthcoming)

The above list gives a sense of Colson Whitehead's productivity over the last twenty-two years.  


Black Lives Matter Era Writing (a partial checklist)


Here's a brief checklist of writings related to what we now refer to as Black Lives Matter

• 2012: Trymaine Lee produces dozens of articles about the killing of Trayvon Martin for HuffPost
• 2012: Ta-Nehisi Coates produces extensive blog series for The Atlantic about Martin, Stand Your Ground Laws
• 2012: Charles Blow publishes "The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin" for The New York Times.
• 2014: Trymaine Lee produces dozens of articles about the killing of Mike Brown for MSNBC.
• 2014: Coates publishes "The Case for Reparations" for The Atlantic
• 2014: Claudia Rankine publishes Citizen: An American Lyric.
• 2015: Coates publishes Between the World and Me.
• 2016: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor publishes From #BLACKLIVESMATTER to Black Liberation
• 2016: Colson Whitehead publishes The Underground Railroad
• 2016: Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky. Edited by Tony Medina
• 2017: Angie Thomas publishes The Hate U Give.
• 2017: Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah publishes "A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof" in GQ.
• 2018: Nafissa Thompson-Spires publishes Heads of the Colored People: Short Stories.
• 2019: Colson Whitehead publishes The Nickel Boys
• 2019: Ibram X Kendi publishes How to Be an Antiracist.
• 2020: Elizabeth Alexander publishes "The Trayvon Generation" for The New Yorker


Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Colson Whitehead and The Nickel Boys in Context (Edwardsville Public Library)

This week, I'm discussing Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys as part of a series coordinated by the Edwardsville Public Library and the Edwardsville – SIUE Community Destination Group. I'll discuss Whitehead, creativity, and the multiple contexts for his novel. 

Below are materials related to my talk.

• Black boys as creative inspiration for writers (coming soon)

Reading lists

Friday, May 21, 2021

A checklist of my IRIS sites

Frederick Douglass and Literary Crossroads -- We first set this site up in fall 2018 as part of the NEH Summer Institute that we ran in 2019. It served as a description of the project and as a portal for applications. We updated it for our 2021 NEH institute. We'll revise it for broader public use in fall 2021. Katie Knowles and Ben Ostermeier handled design. I supplied the content and images. 

Representing Richard Wright's Black Boy -- This site was designed to display covers of Richard Wright's autobiography Black Boy. The site was produced in April 2020, with Ben handling design. I wanted a site that allowed visitors to scroll horizontally to view the different book covers. 

• The Wonderful Wordless Phrasings of Amiri Baraka -- This site was designed to showcase audio excerpts from the poet's readings. The site was produced in April 2020, with Ben handling design. A site focusing on the different sounds of birds gave me the idea for this site. 

• The African American Poetry Tracker -- This site, which I'm also thinking of a digital resource, provides information about black poetry publishing histories in anthologies. Meg Smith handled design of the site. 


Building an African American poetry project with a DH Center, Part 2

from the Poetry Tracker homepage

Meg Smith, the research professor for the DH Center at my university has been doing all the heavy and inventive lifting for my project, The African American Poetry Tracker. Meg and I began collaborating back in February, and we completed a major phase on the project on May 19 (heeey, the born day of Malcolm X). 

We did various drafts over the last few months, but Wednesday was a notable mark because Meg solved some tech obstacles with our popup functions. Also, weeks ago, she set a May 20 deadline for herself, noting that as the day I could start sending out links about our prototype. 

Twice each week, Meg holds a couple of open hours. I've always signed up to meet with her on one of those days so we could talk about the development of The Poetry Tracker. The meetings gave me chances to talk out loud about what I had in mind, rethinking elements of the project, consider short- and long-term possibilities. 

Our prototype provides a sense of where we're headed. For now however, we have presented 75 questions with the answers available in popups. We have pages for three poets, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and Langston Hughes, and a page for anthologies. 

In the future, we'll increase the number of focal poets and anthologies. Also, we'll develop a user-interface that allows visitors to pose and hundreds of questions and receive responses about anthologies and black poetry publishing history. 


Friday, May 14, 2021

Fall reading selection: The World Doesn't Require You

This coming fall semester, 125 African American students who participate in the Haley Scholars reading group will read short stories from The World Doesn't Require You (2019) by Rion Amilcar Scott. I'll spend the summer figuring out which six or seven stories we'll cover. 

Some years back, poet  Bro Yao mentioned Scott's work to me and others, and I took note. At the time, I initially thought I might have students here cover Scott's first collection Insurrections (2016), but I ultimately decided to go with his more recent book for now. 

This past semester, our reading group covered and responded to questions about Nafissa Thompson-Spires short story collection, Heads of the Colored People (2018). The previous semester, we broke into three groups with one covering Lauren Wilkinson's American Spy (2019),  another covering Batman and the Outsiders (2020) written by Bryan Hill, and another covering Black Panther Vol. 1 (2016) written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

A snapshot of the books in office
Reading groups or common read programs often focus on nonfiction titles, memoirs, and fiction. Short story collections are less often chosen. I've found, however, that books of essays or stories are useful when working with students who have limited time and don't want to get left too far behind on an extended narrative. 

The Haley reading group, which I've coordinated since 2009, has always taken place online. I decided to assign Scott's book to one of my literature courses as well, so now I'll get a chance to consider The World Doesn't Require You for in-person discussion.

Our request for about 150 books were not mailed at once. Instead, boxes with various numbers of the books were mailed over the course of a few weeks. I stopped by the office recently and saw that almost all of the books had arrived. 

Seeing the stacks of The World Doesn't Require You has me  already looking forward to the reading and response activities that we'll do this fall.