Wednesday, April 30, 2008

CLICK HERE for Jayne Cortez's Tribute To Aimé Césaire

On the final afternoon of the Georgetown/Lannan conference I was sitting in my usual place in the front row listening to the artists’ panel when Rod Smith came to my side holding his cell phone out to me with something on the screen. Digging in my pockets I found my reading glasses and saw that what he was showing me was a web site carrying the news that the great Aimé Césaire had died the night before. Rod and I quietly beckoned to poet Eugene Redmond, who was sitting at the near end of the panel table, and shared the news with him. Eugene waited for the current speaker to conclude, then announced the sad news to the audience. A hush gathered in the crowd as the understanding set in; this man whose work had influenced nearly a century of thinking and writing all around the globe was gone from us.

That night, Jayne Cortez began her reading with what has always been for me a central poem in her body of work, "At A Certain Moment In History," which speaks of Césaire and how at "that moment of no compromise / his poetry became poetry unique to poetry" – You can hear that reading by clicking in the title area of this post –

The photograph of Jayne Cortez is one that I took while she was speaking on that panel which was interrupted by the news.

The photograph of Césaire is probably the most recent one you will see. It was taken by Phyllisa Smith, a PhD student at Penn State, when she was able to visit with the poet and philosopher on a trip to Martinique just this past January. I am grateful that she is willing to share this photograph with the rest of us.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


APRIL 17, 2008

The last day's first panel was titled "Living History," one of the more apt appellations. Six SNCC activists recalled the triumphs and terrors of Mississippi Freedom Summer. Lawrence Guyot built a wall of books around his microphone and appeared determined to refer to each and every one of them before he was good naturedly interrupted by the moderator, Professor Maurice Jackson. Guyot had announced that the audience needn't worry; he would stop when he was finished. Michael Thelwell marvelled at the fact that he had now lived long enough to see Lawrence Guyot interrupted. In fact, though, we all wished he could have gone on for hours -- Guyot worked alongside Fannie Lou Hamer and was a major force in organizing the Mississippi freedom Democratic Party. Everyone on that panel had that kind of story to tell: Charlie Cobb, Walter Fauntroy, Dorie Ladner, Ivanhoe Donaldson and Rutha Harris. Having been away from my home town for a while, I was struck by how little Walter Fauntroy has changed over the years. The highpoint came at the close, when Rutha Harris rose from her seat and got the entire audience to their feet with her. Harris was one of the original Freedom Singers. (Berneice Johnson Reagon was another -- That famous photograph of everybody on stage at the Newport festival holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome" centers on them.) The recording you can hear by clicking at the top of this post features a song written by the activists themselves after one of their number had been assassinated.

Rutha Harris was also the featured speaker at the lunch session. Her lecture took the form of a guided tour through the movement's music. Harris is still in remarkably powerful voice. You can order her recent recording I AM ON THE BATTLEFIELD from Amazon. She has also recently recorded with Mavis Staples.

The afternoon session was another symposium of artists: Askia Toure, Jayne Cortez, Randall Keenan, Thulani Davis and Eugene Redmond, moderated by Robert Patterson (another impressive young graduate of Georgetown's PhD program.) That was followed by Michael Eric Dyson's keynote address, "'A Change Is Gonna Come?' Art and the Politics of the Black Possible." As always, Dyson spoke rapidly, in complete paragraphs with footnotes, but with no text in front of him. Michael talks faster than I can think, but my brain usually catches up to him before too long and he is always invigorating. I checked the podium afterwards to confirm my suspicion that his talks go directly into a device that turns them into books, but no such device was in evidence. Years ago Michael came up to me after an MLA talk and told me effusively that I had been representin'. Few represent as effectively as Michael. Now that he's at Georgetown, maybe he should be the District's next non-voting congressional delegate. I suspect he might shake things up on the Hill more than the first delegate, Walter Fauntroy, was able to do. (FYI For those of you in states with voting representation, the current D.C. non-voting congressional delegate is Eleanor Holmes Norton, one of the very few guests on The Colbert Report who has been able to hold her own with the host.)

Dyson's energetic presentation was a good lead-in to the evening's final set of readings. Prose and Poetry from Jayne Cortez, Randall Keenan, Thulani Davis . . . with a sort of performance/meditation/group hug from actress and arts activist Barbara Ann Teer.

It was the end of a very long day, but none of us was weary. We've made up our minds, and we won't turn around.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Let Freedom Ring
Art and Democracy in the King Years, 1954-1968

April 16, 2008

The second day of the Georgetown/Lannan Foundation Symposium started off with a morning panel on "Scholarly Assessments." I don't have any photos of this one, as I was sitting on the panel and thought it might be rude to jump out in front of the table every few minutes to take pictures of my colleagues. If I later get any photos of our panel from the other photographers in the room, maybe I can post them after the fact. This session brought me together with friends and colleagues stretching back to my first teaching days at Howard University: Joanne Gabbin, Sandra Shannon, Valerie Smith, Eleanor Traylor and Michael Thelwell. We were moderated, to the extent that folks like us are susceptible to moderation, by Jabari Asim, who I'd read in the WASHINGTON POST but had never before met. The good Dr. Gabbin started us off with reflections on poetry and wrapped up with Nina Simone's moving performance from the night she learned of Dr. King's death. My own talk went back to Vincent Harding's reflections the night before, looking at Movement Music and the central role of such musicians as Len Chandler. (You can hear the opening moments of my contribution by clicking at the top of this blog entry. Be forgiving; I didn't run the recording through the Soundforge "Um" remover.) I was most pleased by the audience questions after our initial forays, which gave us an opportunity to widen the discussion to such visual artists as Sam Gilliam.

The panel after our lunch break break assembled many of the poets and artists who were there to perform in the evening readings: Sonia Sanchez, E. Ethelbert Miller, Amiri Baraka, Barbara Teer, and Haki Madhabuti, chaired and hosted by Professor Sonyica Diggs, herself a recent graduate of the Georgetown PhD program and an able representative of the good work being done there.

Then we all made our way over to a beautiful new theater on the campus, where Baraka delivered the annual Lacay Plenary Lecture, on "Art as a Form of Politics," introduced by Ammiel Alcalay. If you've ever spent time around Baraka, you know there are few moments when he isn't writing, doodling or both. His lecture was read fresh from a packed memo pad. (Amiri joked [I THINK it was a joke] that he was looking for somebody to donate a laptop.) The set for that evening's play ("STUFF HAPPENS" by David Hare) made a stunninng backdrop for Baraka's talk. I spent a few delicious minutes as Baraka spoke imagining the cast of the play (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush, Powell and Rice) in their positions in office chairs circling the stage acting as chorus.

Following a reception and a quick dinner, the evening reading featured Sonia Sanchez, E. Ethelbert Miller and Askia Toure.

That photo at the top, by the way, shows Sonia Sanchez listening carefully to Ethlbert Miller.