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Project on the History of Black Writing launches website as hub for black poetry content

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

LAWRENCE — Summers are not necessarily the most popular time for students and professors to be in school, but for the University of Kansas’ Project on the History of Black Writing, the summers are a rare opportunity to bring college and university teachers together for an enriching experience.

Last summer, the HBW reached yet another milestone in its National Endowment for the Humanities grant history. Its seventh grant, titled Don’t Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetry, assisted what NEH refers to as Summer Scholars in navigating the wide world of African-American poetry.

When 24 college and university teachers from across the country converged on the KU campus, they learned from some of the most celebrated scholars of African-American poetry in the country.

One NEH Summer Scholar, Althea Tait, assistant professor of English at SUNY College of Brockport, said the Don't Deny My Voice, or DDMV, institute was a life-changing experience. 

"I was drawn to the institute because of the opportunity to learn from the stellar scholars listed as faculty, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover much more. The material was engaging and challenging in a way that ignited paradigm shifts for me as a person, scholar and, above all, a teacher," Tait said. "The institute represented the true spirit of the academy — a space in which inquiry and passion meet and, most importantly, a continuum is promoted as scholars, teachers and students continue to engage in the discourse.”

Maryemma Graham, HBW’s founder and director, and Sarah Arbuthnot Lendt, the institute coordinator, have found a way to continue to extend the conversations that began in the summer. The HBW offered a series of live podcasts with prominent award-winning poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Terrance Hayes, C. Liegh McInnis, Brenda Marie Osbey, Ishmael Reed and Natasha Trethewey, the 2012 U.S. Poet Laureate.

Now content from both the 2013 summer institute and the podcasts is available on the institute’s website, http://dontdeny.ku.edu/. It is one of many HBW-sponsored programs one can access from HBW’s home page, http://hbw.ku.edu, complete with social media components, including a Facebook page and blog, where viewers can become part of an active community.

“It means we can reach more people using social media because we are adding in all types of outreach programs,” said Graham, who is also a University Distinguished Professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We are trying to create more dialogue and more knowledge.”

Graham said bringing all of the institute work together under a single website will allow for an exchange of ideas within the academic community. The ultimate goal is to take it further beyond KU and to upload content to the site from conferences, seminars and events at other universities as well. Right now, the institute staff members are working on importing videos from a summer institute at Penn State University, and the plan is to identify other opportunities to add content.

“We wanted to have a central repository to help people self-educate, do research and give teachers more resources,” Graham said. “What some universities find is that it is easier for us to go in with you than to reinvent the wheel.”

She said the use of modern technology and social media has also opened the eyes of the poets who contributed to the podcasts. Many are able to take back certain ideas.

“Many artists are saying, ‘I’ve never done this before, but it really shows me a new way to teach, get valuable feedback, and interact with different audiences,’” Graham said. 

The site also will give college teachers access to more content and more opportunities to share ideas. She said the website is a natural progression for HBW, which began using digital technology to open up new possibilities for studying African-American literature in 1983. Now the content not only from DDMV but also from HBW’s previous institutes and its accumulated archives will be accessible to the general public. Social media will also allow for immediate feedback through comments on Facebook and other sites.

Graham said the HBW website, which will serve as one of KU’s Digital Humanities sites, will make important documents and resources available and downloadable, allowing the public, including educators at other institutions, to gain access through the Internet.

“We are in a sense just taking the next logical step to make sure our work has lasting significance,” she said.

DDMV began with a $189,000 NEH grant. The HBW has been bringing artists and educators together for more than 30 years. In addition to public humanities programs, it conducts research, recovers authors, and makes their works available in print and digital formats.  

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