Celebrating African American Literature

Penn State University’s biannual African American literature conference celebrated poetry in grand style this year. Featured keynote addresses included Nikky Finney, Kwame DawesErica Hunt, and Ishion Hutchinson, whose readings illustrated the strength and diversity of African American and Afro-Caribbean verse in the twenty-first century. The many distinguished presenters covered preeminent poets alongside experimental, avant-garde, and multimedia writers. This vital emphasis on challenging traditional notions of poetic form converged upon crucial intersections of performance, recording, music, video, and visual art in New World black poetry.

Having now entered the final stretch of the fall semester, I’m somewhat behind the curve with this recap of last month’s conference. Thankfully, other writers responded more promptly. Howard Rambsy’s coverage on his blog, Cultural Front, not only provides thoughtful commentary on emergent patterns in the study of African American poetry, but also a host of photographs; likewise, Aldon Lynn Nielsen’s Heatstrings blog has even more pictures from the event. These vivid images capture the spirit of collaboration and inquiry that pervaded the conference from the opening keynote until well after the final reading and reception. To these, I’ll add my own modest contribution.

Among the highlights from the weekend was a poetry reading organized and emceed by Aldon Lynn Nielsen, featuring poets Gabeba Baderoon, Christian Campbell, Patrick Durgin, Erica Hunt, Grant Jenkins, Evie Shockley, and Tyrone Williams. Another gratifying and encouraging element of the conference was the opportunity to connect with writers and scholars whose memories sustain the resonance of poets who have been lost–either recently or more distantly. Erica Hunt and Kwame Dawes, for instance, paid tribute to Kofi Awoonor and Jayne Cortez. Donna King, who I first met years ago at PSU’s Graduate Writing Center, recalled the importance of Gil Scott-Heron’s poetry during student protests on Penn State’s campus in the early 1990s. And Wilfred Samuels shared some memories of Sarah Webster Fabio from their time together working under Darwin Turner at the University of Iowa in the mid-1970s.

The spirit of retrospection, however, was equally matched by a sense of possibility for the future of African American literary studies. Several exciting new critical works were on offer at the book sale and several more have been released in the weeks following the conference. Some of these include Shirley Moody-Turner’s Black Folklore and the Politics of Racial Representation and her co-edited anthology with Lovalerie King, Contemporary African American Literature: The Living CanonEmily Lordi’s Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American LiteratureEvie Shockley’s Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American PoetryCourtney Thorsson’s Women’s Work: Nationalism and Contemporary African American Women’s NovelsKathy Lou Schultz’s The Afro-Modernist Epic and Literary History: Tolson, Hughes, Baraka; and–forthcoming from Oxford UP in 2014–Tsitsi Jaji’s Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity.

Citations of other recent titles in black literary criticism resounded throughout the conference, especially Tony Bolden’s Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and CultureKeith D. Leonard’s Fettered Genius: The African American Bardic Poet from Slavery to Civil Rights. Howard Rambsy II’s The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American PoetryMeta DuEwa Jones’ The Muse is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to Spoken Wordand Margo Crawford’s co-edited collection New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement. The presentations by these and other scholars demonstrated that a reconsideration of the Black Arts Movement is currently in full effect.

The conference was organized by Lovalerie King and Shirley Moody-Turner, who deserve tremendous credit for the success of this event. Moreover, essential support was provided by Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Penn State’s Africana Research Center, the departments of African American Studies and English, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, the Center for American Literary Study, and the African American Literature and Culture Society.