Conference Opening Speech


Occasion & Welcome Speech

Thursday, September 29, 1994

By Joanne V. Gabbin


"The time
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed.
And sways in wicked grace."



These magnificent lines from Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "Second Sermon on the Warplan" provide the leitmotif for this conference.  The last forty years have witnessed a furious flowering of black poetry in this country.  Contemporary African-American poets, with a legacy of liberation dating back to the 18th century have been creators of social values as they envisioned a world of justice and equality and eyed the prizes intended for every individual in America.  They have railed against the status quo and protested attitudes and institutions that stood to impede the civil rights movement that changed the nature of American society.

Many of the poets here in this auditorium have given voice to the civil rights struggle of the 60's and 70's and have continued to cry in the wilderness of America during the 80's and 90's.  For example, in the mid sixties, the quiet of the American University was shattered by the demands of newly radicalized students for black student recruitment, scholarships and fellowships, black dormitories and student unions, the recruitment of black faculty and most of all the inclusion of black courses in the curriculum.  In the vanguard of this movement for Black studies were many of the poets who will speak at this conference.  And still more us here have been the beneficiaries of their efforts.  They have not only transformed society but they have reflected that transformation in their lines.  Sometimes quietly and sometimes with raucous abandon, they have cultivated their poetry, their terrible and beauty rage in the service of humankind.

This conference is dedicated to Gwendolyn Brooks, 1994 Jefferson Lecturer, Poet Laureate of Illinois for 25 years, the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in 1950.  We honor her with this dedication because of her prophetic, poetic voice that is urgent, unashamed, graceful, redeeming and radical.  She tells us even amid the loneliness and fear of these unsettling times, that we "must live and conduct [our] blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind."

Certainly there is no better time for such a voice.  As Sheldon Hackney, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities said back in June of this year, "there is a need for a national conversation in which Americans talk about identity, values, and diversity.  From South Central Los Angeles to Crown Heights, from Libertyville to recent assassinations on the Brooklyn Bridge, tensions among racial and ethnic groups in the United States are in volatile condition." (The Washington Post, June 26, 1994, C1, Can We Talk, by Russell Jacoby.)  New media report an epidemic of violence that is gripping our country.  Violence has invaded every sanctuary where we expected safety.  Chronic disease and AIDS are resulting in more casualties than combined modern wars and hopelessness, perhaps the most virulent and relentless intruder, has taken up residence in our homes, our minds, and our very sense of being.

Gwendolyn Brooks is one of many poets who have dedicated their talent and their vision to the renewal of hope and the salvage of our society.  And several of them such as Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti, Michael Harper, Sam Allen, Alvin Aubert, and Eugene Redmond are part of this conference.  In fact more than 30 major poets and critics have come together to read their poems, talk about new approaches to African -American poetry, begin the serious business of writing a literary history of the poetic outpouring over the last four decades, and make the necessary connections with the cultural and folk traditions that ever inform and enrich it.  They have been joined by other distinguished writers, educators, scholars, students and lovers of literature, making this the largest gathering of Black poets and critics at any conference since the late 1960's and the only conference in my memory that has been devoted entirely to African-American poetry.

I hope that you, as participants, have come to this conference, as David Llorens said of the historic Fisk Conference in 1967, "anticipating new ideas, pertinent criticisms, enhanced perspective--a touch of the inexplicable as well as the profound."  Llorens goes on to say, "but one also hopes for that person who will rise to the occasion and provide the emotional stimulus that transforms writers' conferences into good old down home Baptist conventions--for at least a little while."  (Kent, A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, p.189.)  Judging from our list of participants and the excitement that has been generated for this conference, I know that the ground is fertile for a diversity of ideas, perceptions, criticisms and that there is every chance for clashes of consciousness and cultural celebrations.

It is appropriate that this conference is being held here at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  We have at JMU a community in love with poetry.  I have not taught anywhere that there is more enthusiasm generated by a poetry reading.  Certainly, too, this University encourages the understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity which this conference represents.  Moreover, we are in Virginia, a state of firsts.  The first Africans were brought here as indentured servants and established the Jamestown settlement 375 years ago.  Ironically, just 10 miles away the first meeting of the oldest legislative body in continuous existence in the Americas occurred that year.  Virginia led all other states in black population during the antebellum period.  Virginia is the first state of resistance and rebellion--remember Gabriel Prasser's revolt in 1800 and Nat Turner's insurrection in 1831.  And need I say that Virginia is the first state to elect a Black governor in the person of Douglas Wilder.

Finally, I see a lot of good coming out of this conference.  It will make a significant contribution to scholarship on African-American poetry and increase public understanding of its impact in American literature and culture.  We plan a video documentary that JMU's WVPT will produce to trace the major trends in African-American poetry.  We plan a series of videotaped interviews between the participating poets and critics which will be used as education guides for teachers in high school and colleges.  I also hope to collect the scholarly articles that will come out of this conference for publication and thus stimulate greater scholarly and critical exploration of the field.

But certainly resonating at a deeper level, we need this conference because we need a poem.

    With youth killing other youth in our streets, we need a Sanchez poem crying for a purifying fire that will consume the sectionalism and hatred that threaten self-imposed genocide.
    We need a poem.
    With gun boats poised to shove democracy down black throats even if it kills them, we need a Eugene Redmond poem assailing our nostrils with the stench of inanities of war.
    We need a poem.
    While some men denigrate women and call us out of our name, we need a Mari Evans exclaiming "I am a Black
    Strong beyond all definition

    We need a poem.
    With children coming home to drug-infested parents and abuse and indifference, we need in Gwendolyn Brook's poem celebrating innocence and healing, and love.
    We need a poem.
    As we run this danger course as "we walk the way of the new world," we need a Haki poem, urging caution, health, building, learning, teaching, striving, struggling.
    We need a poem.
    We need a poem.
    We need a poem.
    Thank you all for coming.