Many Americans don’t realize the importance of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). They fund all sorts of projects related to history, literature, and philosophy, among other things. Some funding builds buildings and puts on public programs; other funding supports the work of scholars.
For the past week, I have been participating, along with 24 other scholars from across the country, in the NEH Summer Institute, Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement, held at the University of Kansas and the Project on the History of Black Writing. Led by Drs. Maryemma Graham, Howard Rambsy, and Evie Shockley, this two-week institute is examining the legacy of the Black Arts Movement on contemporary African American poetry. Each night we read poems and articles. Then scholar experts present the latest research, and poets read and discuss their poetry. The learning, however, doesn’t end when the sessions are over. At dinner and during breaks, I learn from the other participants in the institute, the poets, and the presenting scholars.
To say that the experience has been amazing and paradigm shifting, would be an understatement. Some of the highlights have been hearing poet Kevin Young read “Ode to the Midwest”. It made us laugh out loud.
Another highlight was hearing Tyehimba Jess read from Leadbelly and his new poetry. I can assure you that when his new book of poetry hits in Spring 2016, the poetry world will be rocked. His mastery of form, combined with his insights about popular culture are brilliant.
I also learned about about how poets can shape and engage history from Brenda Marie Osbey. Her History and Other Poems should be must read material for all Americans. As one participant in the session commented, her work changes our relationship to sugar, tobacco, and all sorts of commodities. Osbey’s poetry makes us look at the world differently.
I cannot wait to see what I learn next week!
NEH funding is making this all happen. I, and the 24 other participants, will be changed forever. We will bring this knowledge and excitement back to our universities and home towns. We will then pass this on to our students and our colleagues. Funding the NEH helps transform scholarship and education in every state and just about every college and high school.
(Thanks to Dr. Howard Rambsy for sharing the pictures of Tyehimba Jess and Kevin Young with me).