Anna and I traveled from both coasts to meet up in Chicago for this year's CLA. Even before the conference had started, we met up with Jerry Ward and Fahamisha Brown. Anna was on hand to present her work on James Baldwin, centered in The Devil Finds Work, but ranging into his television appearances as well.
This year the Langston Hughes Society luncheon hosted a keynote by Nikki Finney.
First up for me was a roundtable sponsored by the Hughes Society, on which each presenter chose one poet for a discussion around social justice. I elected to speak of Amiri Baraka, taking a few minutes to address Baraka's relationship with Hughes, part of my point being their continuing support for one another and for progressive causes, no matter their often stark disagreements. I began with my frequent assertion that a poet's obligation to social justice is no different at bottom from that of anybody else, say an electrician. This was misunderstood by some as a claim that a poet has no such obligation. During the discussion I clarified that what I hold is that everybody bears an obligation to justice, which each answers in the mode of their own calling. "A responsible electrician," I said, "doesn't start a fire in your house. A poet does."
This year's banquet speaker was Haki Madhubuti, who has appeared at past CLA conventions. For me, though, the highlight of the evening, perhaps the highlight of the conference, was the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to Jerry Ward. Professor Ward is someone whose poetry and criticism I was already reading in literary mags in my undergrad days, so you can imagine how pleased I was to meet the man himself the year I earned my PhD. Jerry was among the first to encourage my scholarly publication, and we've been friends across the decades. Anna and I looked forward to meeting up with Jerry at MLA and ALA, and we always find inspiration and love in our encounters with him.
This year also witnessed the debut of the Best Essay prize for the CLA Journal. I was one of the judges, and hope that the new award will encourage even more scholars to submit their work to the journal.
Come Saturday morning, I was on a panel in the first session (thanks again to the early birds who attended) where I continued my work on Baraka's second novel, Six Persons. Before the panel, I had breakfast with the ever-delightful Meta Jones, hearing the good news of her first semester at her new position at the University of North Carolina.