Dive deeper into Black literature

SUNY Potsdam Professor Derek Maus is profiling Black poets, novelists and journalists through daily podcasts for Black History Month. Top row, from left: Ann Petry, Anne Spencer, David Walker (top), Jupiter Hammon (below), Fran Ross, Terrance Hayes, Akwaeke Emezi, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, Brit Bennett. Middle row: Willard Motley, Pauline Hopkins, Sutton Griggs, Chester Himes, Gil Scott-Heron, Danzy Senna, Bryan Washington, Percival Everett. Bottom row: Melvin Tolson, George Schuyler, Samuel Delany, Carolyn Rodgers, Suzan-Lori Parks, Victor LaValle, Kevin Young, Morgan Parker. Provided photos

POTSDAM — Now mid-way through February, 14 Black writers have been featured in a SUNY Potsdam professor’s daily audio snapshots in celebration of Black History Month.

Derek C. Maus, professor of English and communications, launched “A Deeper Dive into African American Literature” at the beginning of the month, profiling Black poets, novelists, journalists and playwrights and their work. The 5-minute episodes are produced in concert with the university’s Center for Diversity and its campus-wide Black History programming.

As an Arkansas public school student in the 1980s, Mr. Maus recalled, the same collection of some 25 Black historical figures were covered in every year’s curriculum.

“Except if you stop with those 25 people, you get this impression that there’s 25 African Americans in any given field who matter,” Mr. Maus said in an interview this week. “And that’s just not true.”

“A Deeper Dive,” he said, is about probing that same phenomenon in American literature and introducing listeners to lesser known Black writers.

“There’s so much diversity within African American literature, and I think we often get boxed in to this vary narrow interpretation of what it is,” he said.

For example, two Black women have read poetry at U.S. presidential inaugurations — Maya Angelou at President Bill Clinton’s in 1993, and Amanda Gorman at Joseph Biden’s last month.

“They write a style of poetry that works really well for inaugurations, and they’re both really good at it,” Mr. Maus said. “But if those are your only exposures to African American women writing poetry, you’ll get the impression that this is how African American women write poetry.”

The introductory-style podcast, he added, is a way of “widening the lens” of the American understanding of Black writers. His suggestion is to explore 28 Black writers, not instead of Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison or James Baldwin, but in addition to them.

“Excellence in and of itself is worth highlighting,” he said. “But the diversity of excellence that’s out there — that’s what is really interesting to me.”

The series is hosted on YouTube and opens with Jupiter Hammon, an enslaved Black man living on Long Island in the 1700s. With his 1760 poem “An Evening Thought,” Hammon became the first Black person to publish writing in the United States.

Early episodes generally chronicle colonial and Civil War era Black Americans, including Phyllis Wheatley, Pauline Hopkins and Sutton Griggs, who wrote “Imperium in Imperio,” a utopian novel that imagines a separate Black state within the United States.

“Imperium in Imperio,” Mr. Maus said, definitively shows that “African American literature is American literature.” Amid the mania of utopian literature being published in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, “right there is Sutton Griggs writing his version of it.”

In later episodes, the series leans more heavily on contemporary Black writers, including Britt Bennett, the 31-year-old best-selling author of “The Mothers” and “The Vanishing Half.”

Listeners will find each day’s episode archived online at wdt.me/mausdc.

“It’s not just something that happens on Feb. 1,” Mr. Maus said. “If people don’t find them until August, then August becomes Black History Month — and all the better.”

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