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Black Literary Suite 2017 will explore the Mississippi Renaissance

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

LAWRENCE — For many, Mississippi conjures images of civil-rights martyrs Emmett Till, Medgar Evers and the Freedom Summer trio of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. Others may know the state as the birthplace of the blues and home to authors such as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty.

Far fewer people know about 21st-century writers like novelist John Hatch, author of “Mississippi Swamp,” or poet C. Liegh McInnis. One of the most important states for black writers over the past three centuries, the production of works detailing the black experience there, according to the Project on the History of Black Writing, should rightfully be called the Mississippi Renaissance.

By using “Mississippi Renaissance” as its theme, the organizers of the 2017 Black Literary Suite, with events starting Feb. 8, hope to place the state’s African-American writers on par with the Harlem Renaissance, the period between World War I and the Great Depression that was marked by exceptional productivity in the fields of literature, music and visual art and which was both the consequence of and the catalyst for social change.

The 2017 Black Literary Suite will juxtapose the Mississippi Renaissance with similar movements centered geographically around New York (Harlem), Chicago and the South more generally. BLS will consist of a series of events throughout February and March, including a digital exhibition, a series of discussions and a film showing. During the events, the organizers intend to pose these questions: What is the connection of the Mississippi Renaissance to the French word meaning “rebirth”? Why is Mississippi important to African-American writing? What do these works have in common beyond the authors’ background? What changes in the form and content of these works can we see over time?

Sponsored by the Project on the History of Black Writing, housed within the University of Kansas English Department, this is the sixth year for the Black Literary Suite at KU. Maryemma Graham, university distinguished professor of English, was teaching at the University of Mississippi in 1983 when she founded the project. It maintains a small library at Wescoe Hall and is currently completing a digital archive of African-American novels, the first in the United States.

The suite will include three panel discussions and the Lawrence premiere of a documentary film, “Yazoo Revisited,” which deals with the racial and political history of Yazoo City, Mississippi, gateway to the River Delta region. Filmmaker David Rae Morris will attend and speak at the showing. 

Viewers can access the interactive multimedia component of the exhibition, hosted by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, as part of the kickoff event through QR codes that link to audio recordings of and about the authors. Another feature of the suite will be Twitter chats during February and March using the hashtags #HBW and #BlackLitSuite. BLS will culminate with the release of an electronic syllabus on the Mississippi Renaissance, available March 15. For those unable to attend the kickoff, the exhibition will remain up through the end of March.

“The digital portion will highlight a larger number of writers and culturally important icons from black Mississippi: the funeral of Emmett Till; Greenwood, Mississippi, where Stokely Carmichael first said the words ‘black power,’” said Anthony Boynton, graduate student and project staff member.

“The goal is to emphasize the holdings in our collection and to educate the public about these lesser-known figures,” said Matthew Broussard, graduate student and BLS project manager.

The first panel discussion will focus on Richard Wright, but not his best-known works like “Native Son” and “Black Boy.” Rather, the topics will include his challenge to writers of his generation in “Blueprint for Negro Writing” and the poem “Between the World and Me,” which Ta-Nehisi Coates took as the title for his acclaimed memoir and is this year’s KU Common Book.

The final panel discussion focuses on Jesmyn Ward and her most recent work, “The Fire This Time,” a collection of essays that makes a connection to James Baldwin’s 1963 book, “The Fire Next Time.” Ward, who is on the faculty at Tulane University, won the National Book Award in 2011 for her novel “Salvage the Bones.”

“We can’t find a lot of articles that show up on the book as yet,” said Morgan McComb, a graduate student and suite organizer. “We hope it can become an idea for somebody’s thesis.”

Undergraduates, graduate students and teachers have been organizing and will take part in the various discussions.

The 2017 Black Literary Suite will consist of the following events:

·        Noon-1 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Sabatini Multicultural Resource Center – Exhibition and kickoff reception

·        Noon-1 p.m. Feb. 15 at Sabatini Multicultural Resource Center – Panel discussion on Richard Wright

·        Noon-1 p.m. March 1 at Sabatini Multicultural Resource Center – Panel discussion on Ida B. Wells and Margaret Walker

·        5 p.m. March 6 at Watson Library – KU premiere of the film “Yazoo Revisited”

·        Noon-2 p.m. March 15 at the Spencer Museum of Art – Panel discussion on Jesmyn Ward

All the events are free and open to the public.

For more details on the 2017 Black Literary Suite, visit HBW’s blog at projecthbw.blogspot.com or follow @ProjectHBW on Twitter.

Photos, from top: Ida B. Wells, via WikiCommons. Richard Wright books from the library of the Project on the History of Black Writing, taken by Rick Hellman.