Wednesday, April 23, 2008





APRIL 15, 2008

One of the most consistently rewarding symposia series in the U.S. is the one that began in 2003 under the joint sponsorship of Georgetown University and The Lannan Foundation. In 2005 I was a keynote speaker in their symposium "Black Archipelago: Writing and Performance from the African Diaspora," which brought me together with Jay Wright, Dereck Walcott, Haile Gerima, Linton Kwesi Johnson and others. This year I was invited to join an equally ambitious program examining "Art and Democracy in the King Years," a most welcome supplement to all the obeservations on the anniversary of Dr. King's assasination. While the Pope's visit was tying up traffic over near the new Nationals' stadium, the campus of Georgetown University, more than usually welcoming and beautiful in this early Spring weather, hosted one of the first large meetings to join scholars, artists and civil rights activists for a series of reflections and performances.

The first day of the meetings started off with an eloquent presentation on the Freedom Songs (which were to become a steady theme throughout the symposium) offered by Vincent Harding. I had last seen Dr. Harding more than a two decades earlier when he came to a bookstore near Dupont Circle to speak about his then new, ambitious history THERE IS A RIVER: THE BLACK STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM IN AMERICA. I had heard him since, though. One of the many audience tapes of Ornette Coleman concerts in my collection is a particularly stellar performance in San Francisco back in 1994. Roughly midway through the concert, featuring the work from TONE DIALING, somebody stepped to the microphone and delivered a spell-binding recitation that went on for twelve minutes. I learned from Bay Area poet friends who had been there that the recitation was given by Vincent Harding. At Georgetown, Harding took the dangerous tactic for a keynote speaker of asking his audience to listen carefully to a series of recordings of Freedom Songs. For nearly half an hour, virtually nobody moved, but all were moved. These songs have as much power today as they did when they propelled a movement years ago.

It was more than usually fitting, then, that Harding's quiet sermon was followed by a performance of Georgetown's own gospel choir. This was the second week in a row that a conference I was attending was treated to the gospel voicings of college students --

This was also an opportunity to reunite with friends -- not just poet and activist friends, but with Georgetown's inspiring community of scholars. Angelyn Mitchell, whose anthology of African American criticism my graduate students are reading right now, was the chief organizer of the symposium. Poet Mark McMorris, who had organized the Black Archipelago conference, was on hand every day. Scott Heath, who I met at the ERUPTIONS OF FUNK symposium last year in Alabama, Libby Rifkin, who I knew from her days at the Folger, Louise Bernard, who spoke at my own campus just a year ago, David Gewanter, with whom I've had a running dialogue on poetry for more than a decade, visiting writer Ammiel Alcalay -- I'm here to testify, Georgetown had nothing like this exciting nucleus of faculty back when I was a student across town.

and at some point in the afternoon, New England poet Everett Hoagland showed up to join us, making the dinner hour after Harding's talk perhaps the most concentrated locus of poetic energies in many a year.

The evening featured a poetry reading with Haki Madhabuti, Eugene Redmond and Amiri Baraka, and despite the late hour when the reading finally wound down, the poets agreed to sit down for further discussion with the audience.

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