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. Click here to visit our suggested reading list.

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. Click here to visit our suggested reading list.

“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. Click here to visit our suggested reading list.

“Incendiary Art: Birmingham, 1963”

Patricia Smith

For avery r. young

Baby girls boom. Baby girls blow
and burn, skin balloons, booms.
Baby girls burn, boom. The Lord
dangles, festive and helpless.
Hymnals blacken while brown
baby girls pucker, leak. Blood jells,
muddles pigtail, makes lace stiff.
Baby girls blacken, crackle
in the vague direction of His hands
nailed still. Baby brown girl bodies
gap wide, wider, char and shut.

patricia-smithPATRICIA SMITH is the author of eight books of poetry, including Incendiary Art, winner of the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the 2017 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the 2018 NAACP Image Award, and finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler, a National Book Award finalist; and Gotta Go, Gotta Flow, a collaboration with award-winning Chicago photographer Michael Abramson. Her other books include the poetry volumes Teahouse of the Almighty, Close to Death, Big Towns Big Talk, Life According to Motown; the children’s book Janna and the Kings and the history Africans in America, a companion book to the award-winning PBS series. Her writing has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The Washington Post, and The New York Times and in Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, and Best American Mystery Stories. She co-edited The Golden Shovel Anthology—New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks and edited the crime fiction anthology Staten Island Noir.

From Incendiary Art, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. ©2017 by Northwestern University Press

Northwestern strives to be an instrument for change. Click here to visit our suggested reading list.

Speaking Up to Speak Out

Welcome to Northwestern University Press where we mark this year’s University Press week with the theme: “How to speak up and speak out?” It’s an apt question that highlights why we’re here.

In a publishing environment that increasingly favors middle-of-the-road, low-risk, high-return books, university presses are among the few publishers that find, tell, and highlight important regional stories that would otherwise go untold. An example here at NU Press is Lee Bey’s Southern Exposure.

Fig_B_frontpanelThe book is an insightful and illustrated guide to the glories of Chicago’s South Side’s built environment. Often dismissed or derided as a place of abandonment and violence, the South Side is the origin of many of the most iconic elements of Chicago culture and home to many of its most storied architectural landmarks.

In the book, Bey, a former Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic who also served as deputy chief of staff for urban planning under Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, traces the story of the South Side, which despite decades of disinvestment, is home to many architectural treasures that await rediscovery by travelers to Chicago and architecture aficionados.

Designed by architect Gerald Siegwart, Pride Cleans (now renovated) on 79th St. has been an architectural icon since 1959.

The cover features the D’Angelo Law Library on the campus of the University of Chicago. Designed by Eero Saarinen, the building has graced Hyde Park since 1959. Another mid-century classic is the Chatham neighborhood’s Pride Cleaners (right), an unforgettable example of bold, futuristic style. Designed by Gerald Siegwart, the building’s hyperbolic parabaloid concrete roof continues to attract fans and admirers at the corner of Seventy-Ninth Street and St. Lawrence Avenue.

Interior of the First Church of Deliverance at 4315 South Wabash Avenue in Chicago. The building was originally a hat factory.

In addition to numerous classic and innovative businesses, the book also tours public parks and beaches, homes and residences, and places of worship. A fascinating example is the First Church of Deliverance at 4315 South Wabash. Originally constructed at a hat factory, in 1939 Walter Thomas Bailey partnered with black structural engineer Charles Sumner Duke to remodel and expand the building. They doubled the building’s width, added a second story, and refaced the façade in white terra cotta.

In Southern Exposure, Bey and Northwestern University Press celebrate the vibrant and resilient culture of Chicago’s South Side, offering a luminous example of how university publishing can spotlight unsung stories from our shared history.