John Moutoussamy House, 361 East Eighty-Ninth Place

by Lee Bee

An excerpt from Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side

John Moutoussamy was the first black architect to make partner at a majority white Chicago architecture firm. His Johnson Publishing Building on South Michigan Avenue is still the only downtown skyscraper designed by a black person.

Bey_Fig_5_6
John Moutoussamy House, 361 East Eighty-Ninth Place
Architect Moutoussamy designed this elegant one-story home for himself and his family

Lesser known is the refined modernist home Moutoussamy designed for himself, his wife, and three children at 361 East Eighty-Ninth Place in the South Side’s Chatham community. Built in 1954, the blonde-brick residence is elegant in its simplicity; the home and its integrated garage greet the street as a single rectangular piece.

The Moutoussamy House is part of a notable cluster of modernist houses that were built in Chatham as the neighborhood became a prime spot for solidly middle-class and well-off African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s.

Bey.headshot

LEE BEY is a photographer, writer, lecturer, and consultant who documents and interprets the built environment—and the often complex political, social, and racial forces that shape spaces and places. His writing on architecture and urban design has been featured in ArchitectChicago magazine, Architectural Record, and many news outlets. His photography has appeared in Chicago ArchitectOld-House JournalCITE, and in international design publications, including Bauwelt and Modulør. A former Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic, Bey is also a senior lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and served as deputy chief of staff for urban planning under former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley.

southern-exposure

From SOUTHERN EXPOSURE: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side. Text and photographs copyright © 2019 by Lee Bey. Foreword copyright © 2019 by Amanda Williams. Published 2019 by Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

Northwestern University Press gratefully acknowledges the support of the the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

Northwestern strives to be an instrument for change.

Available in our Summer Sale! Click below to visit.

“The Star”

by Reginald Harris

Her closet is a universe
made for trying on
the brightly colored dresses,
a standing field of flowers
wider than the cramped stamp
of dirt behind the house.

Ignored every day starched white,
reached back into a past
still laced with big band music,
rationed cigarettes, Chanel No. 5,

Stepped into shoes and grew to
adolescence, the clock clock clock
of heels Time racing down the hall
to when he too would be tall, cool,
desirable—an adult—just like
Lena Horne.

How could they not love him as
he made his grand entrance, posed,
placed a trembling hand on narrow hip,

waited breathlessly, sure of their applause?

reggie HReginald Harris, the director of library and outreach services for Poets House, won the 2012 Cave Canem / Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize for Autogeography. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a recipient of Individual Artist awards for poetry and fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council, and his debut collection 10 Tongues: Poems was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and the ForeWord Book of the Year. He is an associate editor for Lambda Literary Review and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

 

autogeographyFrom Autogeography: Poems. Copyright © 2013 by Reginald Harris. Published 2013 by Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

Northwestern strives to be an instrument for change.

“I Don’t Think for a Second That We Won’t Survive This”

By Abdul Ali

 

She starts running. I call cheater as she
gains on me, wobbling uncontrollably.
That bloody fruit in my chest sags low.

I want to tell her. My palm sweats through
a manilla envelope holding court papers;
I blow an invisible donut hole.

My chest is a flat worn-out mattress. Her eyes,
A blurry river— promises to cry for me when I’m gone
But I remind her I ain’t going nowhere!

Time loses seconds; I make a silly face to break the gravity.
I pick her up and we’re flying. Her arms stretch across the sky
With crayola lines of fleshy pinks and browns.

Her body grows small, reversing time as she runs down the hall,
A little rocket, shooting towards light where karate, jump rope,
The sound of her feet beating the swollen ground,

Her learning ancient colored girl chants
Let’s get the rhythm of the hot dog

The air thins, my thoughts lift me to outer space,
I don’t worry
I mouth something to the gods

And I don’t think for a second that we won’t survive this.

 

 

abdul ali_by Mig Dooley
Abdul Ali. Photo by Mig Dooley

ABDUL ALI is the author of Trouble Sleeping (2015), winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize selected by poet Fanny Howe. His poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in Gargoyle, A Gathering of the TribesNational Public RadioThe Washington Post magazine, New Contrast (South Africa), Poets Lore, on the websites of the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation, and in the anthology Full Moon on K Street: Poems about Washington DC (2009), among other publications. He has received grants, awards, and fellowships from the DC Commission of the Arts and Humanities, American University, College Language Association, and the Mt. Vernon Poetry Festival at George Washington University. He has taught writing at Towson University, Goucher College, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University.

furious-flowerFrom Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry. Edited by Joanne V. Gabbin and Lauren K. Alleyne; foreword by Rita Dove. Copyright © 2020 by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. Published 2020. All rights reserved. “I Don’t Think for a Second That We Won’t Survive This” previously appeared in A Gathering the Tribes magazine. Reprinted by permission of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

Northwestern strives to be an instrument for change.

“HAPPY?”

by Vievee Francis

List to a Tale of Love in Acadie, / home of the happy.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie”

 

HAPPY?

I would not say so. Rather, settled
in this moment where no axe falls.

And one might wonder why
not happy in such an idyllic place—

with more trees than might be named
and the blooms ever blooming

in a heat seemingly ceaseless
as the red-throated woodpeckers,

as the tree frogs mating endlessly
on the same limbs a black bear might

loll from, indolent and berry-full.
You have heard me say, Nature

will have its way. That we build
only way stations. I was proud.

I thought I understood, but
now I have come to this ridge,

which wrests its toll: my sleep
grows longer, my dreams follow

into my days. I have begun to name
the birds by their feathering, their calls

and clamor: nightjar, flicker, plover, shrike.
Before the mountain I knew the incinerated

cities. I knew another South. But that
was before I was another. The one

I am becoming as roots reclaim
this soil, as what is felled takes on

a form it could not have imagined,
whose seeds had always rested below

like a sorrow of banjoes.

 

vievee-fancis-810
Vievee Francis. Photo by Eli Burakian

VIEVEE FRANCIS is the author of Blue-Tail Fly, Horse in the Dark, and Forest Primeval, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Poetry. She is an associate professor at Dartmouth College and an associate editor for Callaloo.

 

 

 

From Forest Primeval: Poems. ©2016 by Vievee Francis. Published 2016 by TriQuarterly/
Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

Northwestern strives to be an instrument for change.

A Juneteenth review of “neckbone: visual verses” by avery r. young

On Juneteenth 2019, Northwestern University Press was proud to publish neckbone: visual verses by avery r. young. On the first anniversary of the collection’s release, we’re pleased to re-blog a review of the book by Chicago poet Mike Puican, which first appeared in Another Chicago Magazine on May 11.

neckbone cover

avery r. young’s neckbone: visual verses is a challenging, wildly creative book. Gorgeously printed as an art book—hardback cover, full color, larger trim size—it features photos of young’s artwork, mostly collages that combine text and visuals. In his artist’s statement, young says that the pieces in this book required performance and/or some level of physicality beyond poetry’s usual ink, paper, and language. The physicality of these verses is palpable.

Young’s work brilliantly moves beyond the limits of either language or visuals to evoke a deeper, more visceral audience response. He does it to illuminate the experience of black life “navigating through a grid of whiteness.” The subject matter ranges from scathing, thought-provoking attacks on racism, past and present, to deeply personal details of growing up on Chicago’s West Side. Even the materials he uses connect with black life. Along with paint, ink, tape, paper, cardboard and plastic, young employs hairdressing oil, Kool-Aid, an African American Barbie doll, chicken grease, and synthetic hair to create the works of art reproduced in neckbone.

The significance of the book’s title is made clear in the piece “titletrac(k)” where a rope has a discussion with a neck. The rope says, “yo body will do it to u. I jus(t) res(t) round trachea.” neckbone is a disturbing double entendre referring not only to the soul food staple but also to the part of the body that was encircled by the lynching rope.

averyAs defiant as this work is, a surprising amount of humor runs through it. In one piece, he creates a Drug Facts insert for a skin lightening product that, instead of drug facts, describes a crush the speaker had on a boy (Kwaku) in school. Under “Inactive Ingredients,” he lists various times he met Kwaku, including a moment alone in a locker room when Kwaku drops his towel while talking to him about James Baldwin. The “Directions” are listed as follows, “1. Wash face. 2. Rub on skinRite. 3. Let sit. DO NOT wipe off. 4. Help Kwaku with his Statistics homework.”

In another, he shows a restaurant receipt that, in place of the food items ordered, is a description of an argument at the speaker’s home. Reading down the receipt, we learn about a confrontation between someone who ate all the neckbones from a pot on the stove and the irate cook who stole twenty dollars from that person’s wallet to cover the cost of the food.

A phony test for a Black Studies course asks students to rank the reasons why “You will no longer be hosting the family reunion.” The choices hilariously unveil the problems a family has with a successful relative who seems to have forgotten her roots. One of the seven choices reads:

You mad Mama brushed Chloe’s hair down and pulled it into a ponytail. Yes, Chloe is your child, but you reminding everybody about what you pay for and who owes you what, is disrespectful, at best. 1. You forget them checks cut to get you through Yale. 2. You forget Daddy gave you the down payment on that condo. (All that money and you living on top of people, like Wilona and them did on Good Times). And 3. You forget you still owe me and Junior for the check we ran down to the lawyer office to get you out of Cook County. Solicitation of prostitution was the case they gave you. Lady Marmalade.

neckboneThe dialect, personal experiences, family interactions, and incidents of racism have not been cushioned or interpreted for a non-black audience. Early in the book, someone in a writing workshop says to him, “first you have to create this code & then We will follow suit.” He responds with, “summa us don’t need a “t” to say wallah-mellon or DECODER: not necessarily fo(r) de NON-BLACK folk readin dis book.”

He follows this with a one-page “Grammar Glossary,” a scholarly, tongue-in-cheek aid for deciphering his idiosyncratic code (which this white reader found helpful). Young ends many of his pieces with an exclamatory, “blk!” The glossary defines it as, “blk = 1. Black as in a color. 2. Black as in the people. . . .”

This collection bristles with a work-in-progress energy. From page to page, there are cross-outs, handwriting in the margins, and editorial notes as though everything is continually in the process of being reworked and rethought.

One electrifying example of how that approach aids young’s expressiveness is a thirty-two-page sequence that begins with a handwritten note addressed to a child who was beaten up. Each subsequent page then reworks what came before with cross-outs and additions as though the author is trying to uncover his subject. After a few pages, the text centers on Billie Holiday. It starts with a dream of her appearing on the TV show, Soul Train (which first aired twelve years after her death).

As the pages progress, the story moves from Holiday not being able to properly lip-sync her songs on Soul Train, to the lips of a neighbor who attempted to rape her when she was eleven, to nuns who had her soak in a mustard bath for a back-room abortion, to her teen life in a brothel, to her ability to fight as she beat a white man who extinguished his cigarette on her arm. There’s even a collage that includes her revoked New York cabaret license (revoked due to a drug conviction).

All this culminates at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, during which, while pinning a gardenia to her hair, she accidentally pierces the side of her head and bleeds for the remainder of the performance. Young’s piece ends with a paragraph that is mostly crossed out. The few, jarring words remain are, “a song spose to have a blood nobody can see on de blk.”

The crossed-out words are still readable. They give fragments of the singer’s hard-scrabble life—the rape, the abortion, the fights, the racism, the drugs. Through Young’s work-in-progress approach, we develop a deep appreciation of the complex life of Billie Holiday. All this leads to her triumphant Carnegie Hall concert in which she wows the audience through three encores as she bleeds, literally and figuratively, in a way that “nobody can see.”

Young uses his command of language, materials, and space to tell heartbreaking stories of young people who’ve been victims of violence. In the piece “June 4, 2012,” three narrow poems appear side by side. In the first poem, the speaker tells of seeing a drug dealer on the street three years after he taught that boy poetry in the seventh grade. The next poem repeats the first poem, but continues with an account of a two-year-old boy with his arms out who runs to the dealer as the dealer calls him “lil man.” The third poem repeats the second but adds that the dealer then kisses the little boy on his forehead as he tells the speaker that he remembers something from his poetry class, that “ery boy shud see him father read.”

By repeating the poem, then adding unexpected details, young challenges the reader to examine the stereotype of someone dealing drugs on the street. We see that person, still a boy himself, as a father who shows love to his son and a student who remembers advice from his teacher. We see him as complicated and individual.

This is followed on the next page by a collage of paper, ink, acrylic paint, Vaseline and thread. It depicts a memorial flyer for the same young man, showing him in his graduation regalia. The speaker tells of sitting in a back pew of the funeral when, in the middle of the preacher’s eulogy, the “lil man” who is now older, stands up, walks to the casket, and gives his father a kiss on the forehead. Young ends with, “ery boy shd see him father breve.” The statement of the utter waste of a human life could hardly be made more strongly.

The determination to expose and overturn expectations runs through the core of neckbone. This is especially on display as the speaker reflects on growing up black, gay and disabled. He recounts a number of sometimes humorous, often disturbing, incidents while coming to terms with his sexual orientation. They include bullying from those in his neighborhood, along with well-intentioned but clueless advice from family members.

In a masterful poem called “thirteen,” the speaker describes the effects of many surgeries and treatments he underwent for a crippling illness and how for five years he celebrated his birthdays in one hospital or another. The poem begins at the speaker’s thirteenth birthday and describes the events and interactions that occur each month until his next birthday. Finally, when he turns fourteen, he announces that there will be no more surgeries. His cousins tell him, “yo gonna be walkin wif yo crook(id) club feet till u cant walk no mo.” He declares that he’s going to find a discotech and dance. Because, he says, “u cant breve if u cant dance . . .” Despite the obstacles, he continually finds ways to embrace his identity and celebrate the person he is.

Whether fearlessly calling out acts of racism, humanizing the effects of senseless violence, or describing dysfunctional yet loving stories of family life, young’s shapeshifting work overflows with boundless creativity, the determination to say the truth, and, above all, a restless, infectious spirit. neckbone is a wild, go-anywhere ride that welcomes all readers, black and non-black, to climb in, buckle up, and hang on tight.

✶✶✶✶

Puican Author Photo (1)Mike Puican’s debut book of poetry, Central Air, will be released by Northwestern Press this August. He has had poems in PoetryMichigan Quarterly Review, and New England Review among others, and he won the 2004 Tia Chucha Press Chapbook Contest for his chapbook, 30 Seconds. Mike was a member of the 1996 Chicago Slam Team, and is a long-time board member of the Guild Literary Complex in Chicago. Currently, he teaches poetry to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals at the Federal Metropolitan Correctional Center and St. Leonard’s House.

Northwestern strives to be an instrument for change.

Nikky Finney’s “HOTBED 224”

 

 

nikky-finneyNIKKY FINNEY is the author of five books of poetry, including Head Off & Split (NU Press, 2011), winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. She is the John H. Bennett, Jr., Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina. Finney has received the Art for Change Fellowship from the Ford Foundation and currently serves as an ambassador for the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s Art for Justice Project.

ALRONDA URIBE is a National Scholastic Gold Key Winner, 2018 Urban Word Slam Poetry Champion, and DreamYard Bronx Poetry Project member.

From Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems & Artifacts. Copyright © 2020 by Northwestern University Press.

Northwestern strives to be an instrument for change.

“Daily Conscription”

by Kyle Dargan

We can no longer afford that particular romance.
—James Baldwin

Brother Rickey halts me before I cross East
Capitol. He trumpets that we are at war.

I want to admit that I don’t believe in “white”
—in the manner that Baldwin did not—but Brother

Rickey would simply retort that my disbelief
is no immunity from the imaginations of those

who think themselves “white.” As we await
the stoplight’s shift—so I may walk and he may

holler “Final Call!” between lanes of idle traffic—I
think of race as something akin to climate change,

a force we don’t have to believe in for it to undo us.
I once believed in the seasons. (I fantasize

fall as Brother Rickey’s favorite—when
his suits, boxy and plaid, would be neither too hot nor

thin.) But we are losing spring and fall—tripping
from blaze to frost and back. And what’s to say

we won’t soon shed another season, one of these
remaining two, and live on either an Earth

of molten streets or one of frozen light? That’s when
worlds end, no—when, after we’ve eradicated

ourselves, we become faint fossils to be exhumed
by the curiosities of whichever life-forms follow

our reign? I still owe Brother Rickey two dollars
for the paper he last placed in my hand, calling me

“soldier.” I don’t have to believe that I am enlisted
in order to understand he’ll forgive my debt

so long as this idea of “whiteness” sorties above us—
ultraviolet, obliging an aseasonal, unending deployment.

Released by the signal, I advance—my head down,
straining to discern the crossfire from the cover.

 

Kyle-Dargan
Kyle Dargan. Photo: Marlene Hawthorne Thomas

KYLE DARGAN is the author of four collections of poetry—Honest Engine (2015), Logorrhea Dementia (2010), Bouquet of Hungers (2007), and The Listening (2004). For his work, he has received the 2019 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. His books also have been finalists for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize. Dargan has partnered with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities to produce poetry programming at the White House and Library of Congress. He has worked with and supports a number of youth writing organizations, such as 826DC, Writopia Lab, and the Young Writers Workshop. He is currently an associate professor of literature and director of creative writing at American University, as well as the founder and editor of POST NO ILLS magazine.

From Anagnorisis: Poems. ©2017 by Kyle Dargan. Published 2018 by TriQuarterly/
Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

Northwestern strives to be an instrument for change.

Nikky Finney’s “HOTBED 58”

It’s December in Sweden and I’ve come to pick up Miss Morrison from the Nobel Banquet at Stockholm City Hall. I’m driving the washed and waxed black limo. I have on my vintage Pullman hat. My locks are tucked tight under the rim of the fifty-year-old brim. She won’t recognize me. She won’t remember our meeting many years ago when I stood in a very long line waiting for her to sign my hot-off-the-press copy of Song of Solomon. I had my first book, On Wings Made of Gauze, hiding under my arm as a gift. I wanted to show her evidence of what her words had helped me realize. An hour later when I finally reached her she stared at the front of the book for a minute then turned it over (a startling black-and-white photo stretched from top to bottom). She looked from the photo back to me, Look at you. Then added, You working? Her statement was Black woman familiar. Something one of my aunts might have said to encourage audacity. It was the question that startled me. Had I been waiting for a compliment and not a question about devotion? I never answered. The bookstore assistant pushed me along welcoming the next reader in line. I have kept the moment and the question over my desk for the last thirty years. The city hall doorman brings me back to the streets of Stockholm when he opens the car door for Miss Morrison. The ceiling light pops on and he helps her into the dark back. Of course, because she is who she is, she notices everything: my poking-out locks; the cool, nicely visible Pullman seal on the front of the hat. She seems to be staring Microsoft Word - June 15, 2019:Lovechild's Hot Bed Final Final Fat its reflection in the rearview mirror. Nice hat, she says without giving comment about the wayward lock. Thank you. The limo driver’s training course said not to speak unless spoken to. I don’t look her way. I’ve been practicing playing it cool for weeks. She calls Lois on her new Nokia 100. The latest in 1993 mobile phone technology. I’ve never seen one before—of course Miss Morrison would have one of the first. She raises the phone to her beautiful Howard U. dramaturge lips and leans into the backseat like a woman who knows good leather from bad, like a woman who has just won the Nobel Prize in Literature and left nothing worth hearing unsaid—for the moment. She’s relaxed and staring out the window into the world she owns. I can tell she’s tired of Swedes and caviar and just wants to get back to her Hudson River Drive. I say nothing and ease away from the traffic light into the starry frigid Stockholm night. I want to open my mouth and tell her the backstory about quitting my job and buying a ticket to Sweden and applying for this part-time job in order to drive her wherever she wants to go while she is in Stockholm to receive the greatest literary award in the world. But not even Toni Morrison would believe my long Afrogalaxy story that is absolutely true. I try to use only the side mirrors to see what I need to see and get us where we need to go because if she notices me looking at her in the rearview she’ll know I’m a fraud. First she’ll see the river banking in my eyes and next the ocean gathering in my face. The deep water of how grateful I am. I am here in Stockholm because I want to thank her for writing the books she needed to read and for making more than one copy. I don’t want her to see or ask me any questions about the journal book I have open and on the front seat. I don’t want her to ask what a Black woman with locks is doing driving a limo in Stockholm, two weeks before Christmas, one night after the sacred night of her Nobel Prize award. A coincidence? Hardly. You know how she likes to follow her questions out backwards all the way to the end. Red light. What a great Black woman laugh she has. Lois must’ve said something Lorain, Ohio–crazy. Miss Morrison’s laugh could make a Black man wearing blue silk take flight off the top of a hospital building and not look down. She tells Lois to hold on a minute and covers the speaker holes in the funny-shaped phone with her writing hand that sparkles with a one-of-a-kind blue sapphire. Well, look at you, Miss Pullman Porter, all these years and you still haven’t answered my question. Haven’t you heard how I don’t like to repeat myself. Maybe just this once. You working?

 

nikky-finneyNIKKY FINNEY is the author of five books of poetry, including Head Off & Split (NU Press, 2011), winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. She is the John H. Bennett, Jr., Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina. Finney has received the Art for Change Fellowship from the Ford Foundation and currently serves as an ambassador for the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s Art for Justice Project.

From Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems & Artifacts. Copyright © 2020 by Northwestern University Press.

Northwestern strives to be an instrument for change.

So what does it mean to say that Blackademic Lives Matter?

by Lavelle Porter

An excerpt from The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual 

So what does it mean to say that Blackademic Lives Matter?

blackademic-lifeBlackademic: A portmanteau of “black” and “academic.” My first literary encounter with the word was in Mat Johnson’s academic novel Pym, but I’m sure he was not the first to use it. It is a word that has long been floating around the internet as a term of solidarity among black students and professors. We all understand that no matter where we are located, even on majority-black campuses, we represent only a small portion of the professoriat. According to a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, African Americans account for 6 percent of full- time faculty in America’s postsecondary institutions (with black women accounting for half of that 6 percent).

Though my focus is on formal higher education, I have strived toward a conception of the academic that is not an exclusionary one. The history of black scholarship is a history of independent black intellectuals working on the margins of an academy that was often hostile toward and dismissive of their work. Despite the gripes of conservatives in the culture wars— which Ishmael Reed satirizes in his 1993 academic novel Japanese by Spring— it hasn’t really been that long since scholarship on African American literature, culture, and history has been taken seriously in academia. Black studies is hardly the dominant presence that culture warriors invent in their strident political screeds. I confess that there are times when maybe I conflate intellectual and academic more than I should, no matter how much I know I should contextualize the term with the help of Antonio Gramsci, bell hooks, Harold Cruse, and Jerry Watts. However, one thing that draws me to academic fiction is the way that this work affirms the importance of the college as a site for the institutionalization and dissemination of knowledge. Rather than retreating from the academy and declaring it a space for hopeless sellouts, these works constitute a documented record of how black intellectuals have brought the fight to the Ivory Tower and have insisted on making spaces for themselves, whether at black colleges or at white colleges that originally excluded them. They show why the fight for the university is a worthy struggle, even as they may hold on to doubts about its political efficacy as a site for liberation.

Lives: Being neither a biologist, cosmologist, nor theologian, I won’t claim to speak to the definition of life on those terms. But in the context of academia one finds in the literature various invocations of the term “the academic life.” Cynthia Franklin’s Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today is a study of the academic memoir, a genre very closely related to the academic novel (and some might say too closely related, since the dominant mode of “literary realism” in academic novels often means its authors use names of real professors and institutions, or use pseudonyms so thin they might as well be real names). To me, the word “life” in this academic context involves ideas of intention, purpose, and mindfulness. What does it mean to devote one’s energy and substance to this profession? What does it mean to make a choice to devote one’s finite time in this earthly form to the purposes of scholarship and teaching? I think one of the most eloquent statements about the academic life comes from the terminally ill Dr. Vivian Bearing, the professor of English in Margaret Edson’s academic play Wit, who speaks of “the contribution to knowledge” as the most profound act of her life.7 In her case that contribution included her scholarship, her teaching, and even the very substance of her body, which she gives over as a sacrifice to medical research on the aggressive ovarian cancer that would eventually take her life. There are similarly poignant stories of sacrifice in black academic novels, of people who gave their lives to the cause of education and uplift, for whom academia was not just a profession but also a calling and a critical site in a multigenerational struggle for equality and liberation.

Matter: “To matter” is to make a difference, to have meaning and purpose. I am also thinking of “matter” and “life” in materialist terms related to the body and labor. The biopolitical history of America is one in which the black body is solely a material resource for white wealth extraction. In Thomas Jefferson’s infamous Query XIV in Notes on the State of Virginia he argued that blacks were essentially born to be beasts of burden, that they didn’t suffer in the heat, that they had animalistic sexual appetites, and that even if one of them, like the poet Phillis Wheatley, managed to become literate and attempt to write, at best her work could achieve only cheap imitation and never reach the intellectual accomplishment of imaginative literature. When black bodies were shipped to the Americas as part of a massive project of capitalist profiteering, the enslaved were not considered persons at all but raw material in this enterprise. The university was also part of that capitalist slave economy, and Craig Steven Wilder’s sobering 2015 book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities has shown the extent to which universities in their early years were funded by the transatlantic slave trade and functioned as the ideological wing of a racial capitalist enterprise. That raises the question— what does it mean to have black bodies in these same spaces that were built, in part if not in whole, for the perpetuation of racial capitalism? This is a concept that student activists are addressing now as they challenge their institutions to consider what it means to have their black students living and studying in buildings named for slaveholders and slavery apologists, such as the students of Middle Tennessee State University, who successfully protested to change the name of Forrest Hall, a building named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Since the days of Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley, black writers have been writing against regimes of domination and dehumanization. Black academic novels not only participate in this tradition of using writing and education as tools of liberation but also call attention to the ways that practices of literary production have historically been bound up with racialized thinking.

In the pages that follow I show how and why Blackademic Lives Matter, why blackademic novels matter, and I share some of the lessons I’ve learned by spending time with these books. And to paraphrase something that the activists in the Black Lives Matter movement have argued, ceaselessly, against their most obtuse critics: to say that Blackademic Lives Matter does not mean these are the only lives that matter. I won’t even dignify the foolish argument that focusing on black people means I’m being antiwhite. More importantly, I do not wish to reify an elitist vanguardism of “the talented tenth,” an idea that privileges educated, respectable black people over other members of the group. Black academic novels deal with higher forms of education and therefore often deal with black people of academic achievement who move in elite spaces, but they also contain numerous criticisms of the respectability, elitism, and colorism that have afflicted black politics. One of the most valuable aspects of this project has been the opportunity to review the variety of strategies that black intellectuals have used to define their own political roles as intellectuals.

img_0690LAVELLE PORTER was born and raised in Meridian, Mississippi. He now holds a Ph.D. in English from the CUNY Graduate Center and a B.A. in history from Morehouse College. His writing has appeared in venues such as The New InquiryPoetry Foundation, and JSTOR Daily, and he is a blogger for Black Perspectives. He serves on the Board of Directors of the CLAGS Center for LGBTQ Studies. He has also worked as a licensed New York City walking tour guide, and has taught courses on NYC literature and history.

From the introduction to The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual by Lavelle Porter. Copyright © 2020 by Northwestern University Press.

Northwestern strives to be an instrument for change.

“Chicago is the world’s Harold’s chicken box”

Kara Jackson

open and picked apart
the heart of America that beats too fast,
because if you don’t run quick enough,
you don’t know who will shoot you.

In Chicago, the cops look like gargoyles with guns for teeth
the land of long buildings and lost boys. Sometimes I think
there is no name for Chicago,
just a mother’s cry to the master of the earth
bring my baby home, speak up, bring my baby home
wherever he is, so I will breathe. For once.

Chicago is a rattling dashboard camera that fell off,
or broke, or maybe both.

The city of meticulous investigations,
where the people don’t talk about death,
they just pull out everything from their pockets
and spread them on the table,
thinking how much money can we bury a black boy in?

The windy city where boys dangle and sway and spin and sputter
until the pavement feels better to sleep on than their own beds.

They can only sleep now.

 

From The End of Chiraq: A Literary Mixtape, edited by Javon Johnson and Kevin Koval, ©2018 by Northwestern University Press

orig_photo702097_7382445Kara Jackson is 2019 National Youth Poet Laureate. Commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2016 and 2017, Jackson is also a previous Youth Poet Laureate of Chicago. In 2018, she won the literary award at the annual Louder Than a Bomb finals selected by National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist Patricia Smith.

Northwestern strives to be an instrument for change.