Writing Diaspora at Keene State

Keene State College hosted a diverse, ambitious, and accomplished group of scholars and artists on campus this semester. Their innovative, visionary work provoked extended discussions about home and belonging—but also ancestral memory and lost homeland. Our intellectual community coalesced around issues of historical disruption, geographic dispersion, and diasporic kinship.

Through poetry, music, dance, film, memoir, and fiction, we examined how art and imagination influence strategies of resistance and deepen our understandings of social justice. We considered how new technologies connect us instantly to distant points in space and time, propelling the fragmentation of everyday life. Such a constellation of ideas brought into focus new insights about the displacement and recovery of memory, of voice.

The first few weeks of 2015 set the tone for the semester. The American Studies department sponsored a film series for Black History Month, including Baraka’s Dutchman, the documentary Take this Hammer (featuring James Baldwin), and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. An encore screening of Paris is Burning was shown by popular demand. On the radio, I played four single-artist shows—J Dilla, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and Billie Holiday—tracing a vanguard lineage from hip-hop to the blues.




This year, we celebrated one hundred years of Lady Day and fifty years of Black Power. We marked the golden anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and King’s march from Selma to Montgomery. Keene State’s office diversity and multiculturalism, led by Dottie Morris, hosted events each week recognizing our radical history and reflecting on current crises of systemic injustice and state violence.

Many programs were offered in memory of the Civil Rights activist and seminary student Jonathan Daniels, born here in Keene, who participated in the Selma march. Daniels was murdered by a deputy sheriff (another unpaid volunteer, it’s worth noting) in the summer of 1965 while protesting segregation and black disenfranchisement in Alabama. The local historical society currently features an exhibit of religious art by Pamela Chatterton-Purdy praising the heroes, and especially the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.

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In March, I journeyed with a colleague to Amherst, MA, where Sister Sonia Sanchez, herself a veteran activist and prophetic poet, performed with the New Africa House Ensemble (look for video, hopefully, coming soon). After their set, Sanchez, John H. Bracy, and James Smethurst gave talks drawn from their recent co-edited Black Arts anthology. The book is an instant classic. Sister Sanchez, as ever, brought fire to the mic. The seven-piece band, in a tight pocket, laid down standards like “Naima” and “Maiden Voyage” as a point of departure. Stunning artwork by Brenda Jones hung in the Augusta Savage gallery, contributing a visual dynamic to the inter-arts collaboration.

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The following week, Keene State hosted the Jamaican critic, novelist, poet, and filmmaker Imani Tafari-Ama, who spoke on Rastafari theology, race and slavery, gender identity, reggae music, and the postcolonial evolution of Jamaican culture and politics. Her recent novel, Up for Air, deals with the 2010 Tivoli Incursion—in which at least 73 civilians died during a police manhunt for Christopher Dudus Coke. Her emphasis on historical trauma and gendered violence makes her work an essential counterpart to Marlon James’ celebrated novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, which deals with masculinity, gang violence, and geopolitics in a similar fictional/historical mode–in his case revolving around the assassination attempt on Bob Marley. Tafari-Ama give riveting lectures and also performed her work alongside students who rapped poems penned in her honor.

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Around the same time, the Keene is Reading program held a lecture by our resident jazz impresario and musicologist, Julian Gerstein, an expert on diasporic percussion—especially that of Martinique. He gave an incisive reading of the thematic role of music in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah (the Keene is Reading text for the year) and spoke about Fela Kuti’s radical politics and postcolonial philosophy, forged in part through his family’s leftist affiliations and emboldened by his experiences with the Black Panthers in California. For additional context, we watched and discussed the film adaptation of Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, about the Nigerian Civil War. That conflict remains divisive; the film’s release in Nigeria was delayed by the government.

Following a short recess for spring break, our campus rallied with several more standout performances. Choreographer Robert Moses and his Kin troupe presented the New England premiere of Nevabawarldapece (Neva-B-A-Warld-A-Pece) at the Redfern, our vibrant performing arts center. Moses’ work, composed in collaboration with Carl Hancock Rux and Laura Love, explores collective action and social movements across the twentieth century. Leading a discussion with students and faculty, the choreographer explained that he was particularly inspired by the difficult moments—the low points—in these struggles. He pinpointed the frustration that drew student activists to the Black Power Movement.

It was only two days later that poet Afaa Michael Weaver visited the English Department to lead classes and read from his profoundly transforming work. Recently published, City of Eternal Spring fulfills a trilogy that includes The Government of Nature and The Plum Flower Dance. Weaver also read from A Hard Summation, a suite of thirteen poems that covers African American history from the Middle Passage to the present. He spoke about discovering his genetic heritage and the conscious impact of his working-class roots in Baltimore. He emphasized rootedness in place, but also travel and worldliness. Weaver talked about his spiritual practice and the importance of cultivating mindfulness, but cautioned, too, that the pursuit of peace necessitates painful confrontation.

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The same week, the poet Peter Balakian spoke and read from his memoir, Black Dog of Fate, which tells of his coming to awareness of his family’s escape from the Armenian Genocide. The book reckons with historical trauma and explores what it means to create and inhabit diasporic identity. This month marks the centennial of the beginning of that atrocity, reminding us of the political stakes of memory.

The weekend presented an essential opportunity to unwind at the Vermont Jazz Center. Chilean tenor player Melissa Aldana and the Crash Trio (bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Francisco Mela) lit up Brattleboro’s best music venue. The group’s intense beauty was fueled by their fierce improvisational chops and cohesion, complemented by more meditative grooves and freer tangents.

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April brought us to the culminating event for the Keene Is Reading program, which featured two major Nigerian fiction writers: E.C. Osondu and Helon Habila. I first read Habila’s work during graduate school; we met just after I returned from Nigeria and discussed literature, music, and Lagos. His latest novel, Oil on Water, is an environmental thriller about the devastating ecological, cultural, and political impacts of oil extraction in the Niger delta. The novel achieves a remarkable balance between narrative momentum, aesthetic innovation, and political imperative.

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Osondu’s book of short stories, Voice of America, navigates Nigerian and American consciousness and culture in the context of transatlantic migrations. His characters cross and re-cross borders, face cultural alienation and systemic oppression, and yet remain true to their personalities, humor, and ambition. The British edition of his recent novel, This House is Not For Sale, features an original painting by Lemi Gheriokwu, who designed album covers for Fela Kuti.

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Many thanks to Keene State’s English and American Studies departments and the entire Arts and Humanities faculty, especially Mike Antonucci, Emily Robins Sharpe, and Bill Stroup. Dottie Morris and Sharon Fantl deserve vast credit for their programming and community outreach. I am thankful for students’ serious engagement with these pressing issues of cultural difference, creative expression, and political change. And I write with profound gratitude to the many artists and scholars who contributed to the intellectual life of Keene State College this semester.

For the Millions

Abiodun21As a research assistant for Dr. Bernard W. Bell at Penn State, I heard my share of stories. I listened especially closely when he reminisced about the Black Student Movement during the late 60s and early 70s. While working with Dr. Bell, he published a provocative account of founding Black Studies at UMass, emphasizing his role in the institutional history. Many of the events chronicled in the essay, “Passing on the Radical Legacy of Black Studies at the University of Massachusetts: The W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, 1968-71,” took place at the New Africa House.

Although I know Dr. Bell’s version isn’t the only one, I carried these memories with me to Amherst when I went to see Abiodun Oyewole speak and perform poetry with a rhythm section at the New Africa House. Oyewole co-founded The Last Poets in 1969, becoming a leader in the populist movement to unite poetic and musical forms using revolutionary, postcolonial, and Afrocentric practices that reflect the political realities and aesthetic sensibilities of black people. The exigence for this radical experiment with multimedia remains the same as it was during the Black Arts era, and Oyewole hasn’t lost his fire.

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The name, The Last Poets, comes from the South African writer Keorapetse Kgositsile; it became something of a franchise–picked up by different groups of poets around the same time. Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain, and David Nelson founded a group that came to be called The Original Last Poets, who recorded the film Right On!: Poetry on Film in 1968 and released the soundtrack as an album. A year later, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Umar Bin Hassan, and Abiodun Oyewole formed the more well-known line-up.

The Last Poets’ self-titled album took its cue from Amiri Baraka’s early experiments with recording poetry accompanied by improvised music. Such albums transformed audio into a politicized medium that affirmed black consciousness and resisted constraints on black literacy. The Last Poets helped inspire mass participation in the Black Arts Movement, including by a young Gil Scott-Heron, then a student at Lincoln University, whose early recordings owe much to the The Last Poets’ synthesis of African percussion, collective chant, and revolutionary politics. Both The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron are featured in the new Black Arts Movement reader, SOS–Calling All Black People, edited by UMass professors John H. Bracy, Jr. and James Smethurst and the poet Sonia Sanchez.

At the New Africa House, Abiodun Oyewole was supported by Tony Vacca and Kevin Harrington (percussion), Donald Geesling (bass), Tantra Zawadi (poetry/vocals), and Massamba Diop (talking drum). I recorded a poem called “For the Millions,” which is included in his new volume of collected poems, Branches of the Tree of Life, published this year by 2Leaf Press.

Hey, Buddy Bolden

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The fourth issue of the Journal of Ethnic American Literature is dedicated to technology and black poetry, guest-edited by SIUE Professor Howard Rambsy. Howard’s excellent book, The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetrycame out in 2011 and was crucial to my dissertation research on Black Arts poetry. His work in digital humanities, visual culture, and black American literature exemplifies an important, evolving conversation in African American literary studies. His blog, Cultural Front, is also a prolific and highly relevant resource on contemporary culture and politics.

DSC03863The back cover of the issue features a photograph, “The Blues Mural, Clarksdale, MS,” depicting a formidable trio: John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Bessie Smith.

DSC03852My contribution to the issue is titled “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say: Recording the Prehistory of Jazz.” The essay examines mythology surrounding Buddy Bolden, the musician who is said to have invented jazz in New Orleans around the turn of the century.

In early jazz criticism, the Bolden myth functions as an allegory for a paradigm shift in modern music. The invention of jazz is harnessed to new technologies that record, duplicate, and replay sound. Yet even as critics lamented the loss of pre-technological authenticity, they claimed recordings as the objective texts of jazz improvisation. Although no recording of Bolden has ever been found—or likely will be—his status as a folk hero is reinforced by each iteration of his story. The legend of Buddy Bolden is retold by musicians as a way to write themselves into the historical record of jazz’s origins. Because Bolden’s sound is not captured by phonographic technology, he becomes a symbol of the oral tradition—one inscribed everywhere in the written history of jazz.

I compiled a playlist for my Jazz Literature course last spring featuring tunes written by and about Buddy Bolden, as well as interviews with musicians who knew him. Jelly Roll Morton gives a colorful, but largely accurate recollection of Bolden’s life and times in his Library of Congress sessions with Alan Lomax. Duke Ellington boasts about King Bolden’s place in the heroic tradition in his spoken-word history of diasporic music, A Drum is A Woman (1956). And, more recently, Wynton Marsalis surveys the myth derived from Bunk Johnson’s letters and interviews with the editors of Jazzmen (1938).

DSC03868In his introduction, Rambsy writes that these wide ranging articles “explore aspects of music history, science fiction, hip hop, Afrofuturism, digital collections, contemporary poetry, and data analysis. The articles affirm the diverse manifestations of scholarly work on black poetry and technoculture.” Without such work, according to Rambsy, “the discourse about one of our most important art forms would lack essential upgrades.”