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. Click here to visit our suggested reading list.

Announcing the 2020-2021 Mellon University Press Diversity Fellows

The University of Washington Press, the MIT Press, Cornell University Press, the Ohio State University Press, University of Chicago Press, Northwestern University Press, and the Association of University Presses (AUPresses) today announce the recipients of the 2020-2021 Mellon University Press Diversity Fellowships.

These fellowships are generously funded by a four-year, $1,205,000 grant awarded to the University of Washington Press from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the continued development and expansion of the pipeline program designed to diversify academic publishing by offering apprenticeships in acquisitions departments. This second grant builds on the success of the initial 2016 grant from the Mellon Foundation, which funded the first cross-press initiative of its kind in the United States to address the marked lack of diversity in the academic publishing industry.

Please join us in welcoming the 2020-2021 Mellon University Press Diversity Fellows:

Jason Alley joins the University of Washington Press after having served as a visiting assistant professor at Beloit College. Originally from greater Los Angeles, he received his BA in film from the University of California, Berkeley and his MA and PhD in anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He brings several years of nonprofit work experience to the table, including stints at Project Inform, a HIV treatment education and advocacy organization, and the Pacific Film Archive, a cinematheque and research center based at the University of California, Berkeley. A fervent believer in good writing across a range of nonfiction genres, Jason’s scholarly interests include anthropology, American studies, visual culture, and feminist and queer studies.

Erika Barrios joins the MIT Press from Northwestern University, where she just completed her BA in English literature. At Northwestern, she worked as a research assistant to digitize the journal Mandorla: Nueva Escritura de las Américas for Open Door Archive. She graduates as an alumna of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, having written her honors thesis on the use of language technology in contemporary US Latinx poetry. Her research interests include twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry and poetics, digital humanities, hemispheric American literature, and literary responses to neoliberalism.

Rebecca Brutus joins the University of Chicago Press after graduating in May from Ithaca College, where she majored in writing and minored in theater studies and women’s and gender studies. At Ithaca she served as senior nonfiction editor of the literary magazine Stillwater and as a tutor in the Writing Center. She worked for the Ithaca College Library and as a writing and social media intern at Buffalo Street Books. She was also involved with ZAP, a student-run volunteer program that organized panels to educate the campus community about diversity-related issues. Her enthusiasm for university press publishing was cemented during an internship in the marketing department at Cornell University Press.

Joe Fitzgibbon joins the Ohio State University Press with a professional background in academic copyediting and proofreading of both books and journals. He received his BA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and MA from the College of William & Mary, where he wrote a thesis on the federalization of US immigration policy in the antebellum period. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin, and spends his free time reading and managing the Wisconsin Sting sled hockey team.

Allegra Martschenko joins Cornell University Press after working as a sales intern at Princeton University Press. She has also worked in the world of children’s book publishing, managing social media for a small press. She is a recent graduate of Princeton University’s School of Architecture, with minors in urban studies and creative writing. Her interests include speculative fiction (especially the work of Laini Taylor), video games, and painting.

Iván Pérez-Zayas joins Northwestern University Press after working as a college professor and journalist. He received his BA in public communications and MA in English literature from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. He has published book and film reviews and co-edited a book of short stories and poems by young Puerto Rican writers, including some of his own work. In 2018, Editorial Disonante published his first poetry chapbook, Para restarse. He is currently writing a dissertation on twentieth- and twenty-first-century Latin American comics, especially those that depict the everyday lives of their characters and explore issues of race, gender and sexuality, to complete his PhD in Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern University.

 

 

Once you “see” dragonflies, your world will change.

The following is an excerpt from Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History, written by Cindy Crosby and illustrated by Peggy Macnamara

In my mailbox is a birthday card from my brother Chris. I open the envelope and shake out a wooden bookmark etched with the image of a dragonfly’s wing. I’m touched. But not entirely surprised. To see anything dragonfly-related prompts my family to think of me. This connection to dragonflies has come about gradually over the past fifteen years—so gradually that some days I’m not quite sure how it all happened. But there it is. Dragonflies and my life are intertwined.

That day, I had returned from Florida, where I celebrated my birthday with my husband, adult children, and six assorted grandkids under age eight. It was the perfect week. Beach, pool, family cookouts, more beach time. Southern dragonflies buzzed through the landscape, many new to me. Interesting shorebirds. Exotic flowers in tropical colors. I felt happy. At peace. Rested.

Then, as our vacation was about to end, my phone vibrated. I saw there was a message from my doctor’s office. Opened it.

The word stared up at me.

Malignant.

Before I’d left home, I’d had a few tests. The doctor who did the first test, and then the second, was reassuring. I’ve done thousands of these biopsies! This one doesn’t look problematic. But of course we won’t know until the tests come back.

And now they had.

“There is no reason to write a book unless the process of imagining it changes one’s life forever,” asserted Richard Manning in his opening chapter of Grassland. This diagnosis dropped into a life molded and shaped by the rhythms of dragonflies. From April to the end of October, I’m restless whenever I’m indoors, wondering what I’m missing by not being outside. The life of the skies and the watery underworld of creeks and ponds have me in their grip; I don’t want to ever feel it loosen.

Chasing DragonfliesDragonflies have become a part of my identity. They’ve been a solace through my cancer diagnosis and my recovery as I watched them fly through my backyard, where I was relegated to a lawn chair in the midst of writing this book and unable to chase them. Dragonflies were also an introduction to hundreds of kind and interesting people, many willing to share their passion for dragonflies and Odonates by phone and email and by my side in the field, mentoring a willing learner like myself. Dragonflies are my nemesis too, the cause of frittering away hundreds of hours of time that might have better been spent earning a paycheck. Or so some people might think.

Once you “see” dragonflies, your world will change. Every backyard barbeque, each walk along a river, or time spent weeding a garden—suddenly, you notice—they are everywhere! So many aloft. So many fluttering in the grasses, skimming ponds, hovering around traffic lights. Each one a bit of unique insect art.

In An Obsession with Butterflies, author Sharman Apt Russell says that adding butterflies to your life is like adding another dimension: “All this existed before, has always existed, but you were unaware. You didn’t see.” Russell’s butterflies have been my dragonflies.

Dragonflies say “mystery” to me.

There is so much we don’t know about the order Odonata. So much to learn. Dragonflies live most of their lives under the surface of the water. One fine day, they pull themselves out, split their old “skins,” and, changeling-like, become something beautiful, colorful, and new. Grow wings. Take to the air. Their brief lives are over before you can blink. Or so it seems. As Kobayashi Issa, the Japanese haiku poet, wrote:

Days are short—the
dragonfly’s life
fleeting, as well

The first half of my life, I had a lot of pat answers to some of life’s most difficult questions. The second half of my life I live knowing some answers are going to be in short supply. Cancer, with its shattering shock waves and mysteries, reinforced this realization. The dragonflies, with their ancient lineage and predictable lives—yet shot through with mystery and the unknown—echo this enigma. Their lives are tenuous, as our lives are. Dragonflies move between water and air, transforming themselves, all while prone to the whims of weather and the vagaries of the next frog, bird, or other predator waiting to snatch them from life.

And yet, for hundreds of millions of years, they have been evolutionary survivors.

As I write these words, a pandemic is sweeping the globe. Illinois families are sheltering in place to avoid becoming infected with the COVID-19 virus. We’re unable to go about the normal rhythms of our days. Workplaces, nature centers, houses of worship, schools—all are closed. My husband, Jeff, and I drive to our daughter’s house and talk to the kids from our car, while they stand on the porch. I teach my classes online. Fear, anxiety, and uncertainty reign.

And yet. Temperatures warm. The month of April arrives. My crocus and daffodils bloom. I stand on the back porch and scan the skies. Although my life and millions of other lives are in complete disarray, the dragonflies are unaffected. The first migrants will arrive any day. Their rhythms of life go on. I find comfort in this. We don’t know how this global pandemic will end. But there is solace in the rhythms of the natural world.

 

Cindy-Crosby-tallgrass-prairieCINDY CROSBY is the author of The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press, 2017). She is a natural history instructor in the Chicago region who coordinates dragonfly monitoring programs at the Morton Arboretum and Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site.

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. Click here to visit our suggested reading list.

“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. Click here to visit our suggested reading list.

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.

The Lab Is Closed: A Collective Future Is Open

by Matthew Applegate

The fallout from our current crises has not yet settled. As we have adapted to online iterations of our work, we have also experienced a profound loss of life, paired with an unprecedented economic collapse. How these crises might affect higher education writ large is perhaps already glimpsed by present conditions of austerity. For Digital Humanities (DH), the uneven and combined effects of the crises could fundamentally alter our disciplinary practice.

Digital Humanities are an assemblage of academic tools and methods that demand intellectual evolution. This is, first, a fact of DH’s disciplinary formation–interdisciplinary and technologically driven–but one that is still frequently debated. Second, the demand to evolve is a political principle realized in DH’s practice. Among its many iterations, traits like collaboration, generative thinking, and making are centered, modeling an intellectual evolution meant to resist individualism in the rush to produce knowledge within larger structures of individual gain. How these disciplinary practices are distinguished from long-established modes of humanistic inquiry define DH as much as they create inevitable tension.

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MATTHEW APPLEGATE is an assistant professor of English and digital humanities and director of the Writing Concentration at Molloy College in New York. Photo Credit: Lukas Firestone

Despite its digital character, institutional space—particularly the laboratory space—is most often the control mechanism that allows DH to realize its disciplinary potential. The lab, and all of its attendant costs, provides the material conditions for DH to affect humanistic inquiry because it gives us space to occupy. The DH lab might mimic more traditional iterations of the space, but it is often housed within a communal space like a library, maximizing the lab’s interdisciplinary potential. The lab is the chapter house of DH praxis, tantamount to access, technology, affiliation, and so many more aspects of what DH scholarship assumes in its practice. But what happens when the lab is closed, in some cases, for good? The question is not new to our condition of crisis, but is certainly more pressing. Perhaps the most obvious consideration here is precisely how institutional closure will produce conditions of unequal access. The speed at which DH labs reopen and provide their participants with resources will be a marker of privilege—prestige institutions stand to widen an already far-reaching gap between land-grant and teaching institutions of various sizes. For many of us, if not the majority, re-creating the resources and experience of the lab in our apartments or via Zoom is an impossibility. Even DH’s minimal iterations, which often offer the best examples of collaborative DH work, are likely to be inaccessible to most in our isolated and fragmented experiences of a global pandemic.

Perhaps the less obvious consideration of DH’s disciplinary evolution lies outside its preferred institutional space. Perhaps it’s not a question of space at all, but of method. Consider David M. Berry and Anders Fagerjord’s argument in their coauthored Digital Humanities: DH “needs to become more self-reflexive and, yes, theoretical in its approaches, to widen its intellectual breadth and depth” (11). Theory’s status in DH work remains marginal. Feminist and postcolonial interventions in DH are our most visible theoretical incursions, but Berry and Fagerjord’s argument aims to center incursions like these and expand them, “deepening [DH’s] critical reflexivity about the work and methods of its subject area” (18). It could be, to echo bell hooks’s “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” the formation of a disciplinary disposition where “our lived experience of theorizing is fundamentally linked to processes of self-recovery, of collective liberation”; a condition where “no gap exists between theory and practice” (2).

This is precisely where my book, Guerrilla Theory: Political Concepts, Critical Digital APPLEGATEHumanities (Northwestern University Press, February 2020), models an approach to theory-driven DH work. The figure of the guerrilla, once commonly invoked in discussions over DH’s disciplinary formation, serves as a heuristic for theorizing the discipline’s continued evolution. My book is motivated by three future-oriented tasks: to (1) identify productive agonisms internal to DH praxis; (2) forefront disciplinary antagonisms to clarify DH’s disciplinary formation; and (3) position DH within a larger constellation of intellectual work that refuses to exclude the material realities of radical difference from their conceptual lineage (50). In this way, theory does not signify a return to individualism, nor a panacea to crisis, but rather an alternative practice for realizing collective goals.

In short, a theoretical turn in DH praxis is a dialogical act that demands participation and remakes our disciplinary conditions. Further, the self-reflexive work that theory offers us is a means of engaging with DH praxis absent heavy reliance on institutional funding, space, or expensive tools. Guerrilla Theory takes these propositions seriously, as it also signals a political turn with which to situate collective responses to radical institutional and disciplinary change.