LAWRENCE — Last year, the sixth Black Literary Suite at the University of Kansas focused on writers from Mississippi. This fall, the seventh Black Literary Suite takes on a broader theme under the rubric “Reclaiming the Black Body: Women Writing Women.”
And while there will be a nod to pop culture with a panel discussion focusing on Beyoncé, the real point of the Black Literary Suite, according to the organizers, is to draw attention to black women’s writing over the past century that has been dedicated to liberating black women’s bodies from oppression and exploitation.
To that end, undergraduate and graduate student leaders of the KU Project on the History of Black Writing have planned a month’s worth of programming that kicks off with a reception at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8, at the Kansas Union Gallery. On display in the gallery will be a timeline created by project members that juxtaposes some of the literary works featured in this year’s suite with notable events that happened during the same time. Some of the project’s collection of rare, out-of-print books will also be displayed at the reception.
Anthony Boynton II, a member of the project staff, said a foundational text in the latest Black Literary Suite will be Harriet Jacobs’ narrative “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” with its ground-breaking depictions of sexual exploitation that enslaved women consistently faced. When the book was published in 1861, Jacobs used a pseudonym. It was not until over a century later that scholar Jean Fagan Yellin verified Jacobs as the author of her story, leading to a remarkable resurgence of interest in the narrative and the lives of enslaved women.
"When we think about the enormous popularity of a work like ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison, we realize the difficult choices black women had to make in fighting against the forms of commodification that slavery subjected them to. The idea of liberation for black women, then, has a lot to do with how they reclaim the very thing that produced wealth for others and loss of dignity for themselves. This is a very complicated issue," said Distinguished Professor of English Maryemma Graham, the project's founder and director.
Some other writers whose works the BLS will feature include poets Alice Dunbar Nelson, Sonia Sanchez and June Jordan, novelists Ann Petry and Octavia Butler, and playwright Suzan Lori-Parks.
The themes of the month will be explored in panel discussions, in a podcast and in a series of Twitter chats using the hashtag #BlackLitSuite.
“We are a research unit that tries to make lesser-known works known,” said project member Morgan McComb. “Ann Petry, for instance, didn’t adhere to mainstream literary expectations set by Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son’ and Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man.’ She told a woman’s story, asking her readers to consider issues of gender as well as race and class, and was overlooked.”
The first panel discussion, “Performing the Body,” takes place at 3 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17, at the Spencer Museum of Art.
“We’ll talk about what’s important about the work of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Cardi B and Michelle Obama,” Boynton said, “and whether black women’s narratives of success challenge a history of denigration.”
Panelists will include project members, faculty and other invited guests. Both panel discussions are free and open to the public.
The second discussion is set for 3 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 28, at the Sabatini Multicultural Resource Center. It is titled “Freeing the Body: The Vision of a Liberated Future.”
“We’ll talk about how we envision a future where black women’s bodies are freed from systemic and historically oppressive spaces,” McComb said.
Boynton (@ADBoyntonII) will moderate two Twitter chats using the hashtag #BlackLitSuite. Both start at 7 p.m. The first is set for Nov. 13 and the second for Nov. 27. Boynton said he will open each one by posting a bit of context and pose a handful of questions to which participants may respond.
For more information, visit the website for the Project on the History of Black Writing.
Photos: At top, a range of books represented in the Project on the History of Black Writing. At right, Octavia Estelle Butler signs a copy of “Fledgling” during a 2005 promotional tour. Photo by Nikolas Coukouma, via Wikicommons.