Oftentimes, Black people are lumped into one box. An online literature exhibit by University of Kansas students works to show the range of cultures and lived experiences among Black people across the western hemisphere.
KU’s Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) is a research unit in the English department at KU. As part of HBW, a biannual program called Black Literary Suite (BLS) aims to engage the KU community and greater public with underappreciated Black literature.
This year’s BLS project, “Black Beyond Borders,” highlights “prominent and promising” Afro-Latinx women writers and scholars, according to the exhibit. Sandra Jacobo, KU graduate student and HBW project coordinator, said Black Beyond Borders presents the uniqueness among Black people everywhere.
“Black people are not a monolith,” Jacobo said. “A lot of times, media and society will see Black people and just assume where they’re from, their lives, their stories, all these different things.”
The exhibit is in the form of an online storymap, presenting eight books and information about each author through words, videos and other visual representations. Pins in a moving map on the right side show the location where the author is writing.
Featured texts include genres of historical fiction, short story collections, autobiographical fiction, and speculative fiction.
“The authors represent nations and identities often ignored in studies of the Latinx/Latin American diaspora as well as the African diaspora: Afro-Puerto Ricans and Caribbeans living in New York, Afro-Haitians, Afro-Cubans, Afro-Mexicans in the United States, Afro-Dominicans, and Afro Brazilians,” the introduction to the exhibit reads.
Not only does the exhibit shift focus to underrepresented voices, but it also brings attention to facets of oppression and pressing human rights issues.
“The texts explore themes of revolution, femme freedom, and a sense of belonging as well as nonbelonging among Afro-Latinx women,” the introduction to the exhibit reads. “As a result, these works foreground the voices of people at the intersection of multiple oppressions – racism, sexism, classism, violence, and xenophobia — within their communities. This list provides just a few examples of how Blackness is multifaceted and contains a multitude of experiences.”
Jacobo said being from New York — where so many different cultures collide — and with both parents from the Caribbean, she has always understood the concept of the African diaspora, or the global spread of descendants of native Africans. She is currently working on her dissertation about Afro-Caribbean speculative fiction written by women and femme persons.
“For me, it’s important for us to show that there are Black people all over the world,” Jacobo said. “As we know, the Atlantic slave trade had left Black people in different pockets of the world, so I think that we need to make connections across the diaspora. It’s important to at least present the information, present the cultures, because there are a lot of similarities that people don’t even notice, and it’s something to celebrate.”
A huge component of HBW is digitizing and preserving Black literature. Ayesha Hardison, KU associate professor of English and HBW program director, said this year’s BLS exhibit also broadens its digital library.
“It’s an opportunity for HBW as well to highlight the diversity, the vastness, the expansiveness of Black literature,” Hardison said.
“The benefit of BLS is to promote this to a new audience and to encourage people to pick up those books and read about the different aspects of the Black experience in different locations beyond the U.S. It’s also an opportunity for HBW to expand its corpus.”
Themes for BLS are student-generated, and Jacobo along with five other BLS students formed a team to collaborate on the exhibit. Jacobo said Christopher Peace, a former doctoral student in the English department, also helped her find pieces of literature.
As part of the project’s research, team members spent time mulling over which texts could ensure diversity of identity, culture, spirituality and ways of thinking. The final eight books are only a fraction of the team’s list of fascinating texts, Hardison said.
Some team members read the featured books in full to help decide and the research included was extensive. Team members dedicated their efforts to extensive research, design, collecting videos to enrich the storymap’s discussion and more.
In conjunction with the exhibit, HBW hosted a talk in September with Dawn Duke, who is an author as well as a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, associate professor in the Spanish and Portuguese program within the Modern Languages Department, chair of the Portuguese program, and an administrator of the Africana Studies program.
The event brought together approximately 20 people in person and 40 people online, according to Hardison. It even had an international presence, with folks calling into the Zoom from countries such as Colombia and Brazil.
“There was a lot of engagement just within the Zoom,” Jacobo said. “People were chatting, people were responding, people were asking questions. So it really started a community, even [within] the Zoom call itself.”
The exhibit doesn’t end with the storymap, though. Hardison and Jacobo shared an additional piece in the works — a podcast.
Jacobo said she’s excited to host the podcast in which she sits down with Vanessa K. Valdés, who is a well known literature professor, author and editor. She is also the director of The City College of New York’s Black Studies Program. They will discuss Valdés’ work and research on issues, like colorism within Latinx communities.
“We’re really excited about it because Sandra and Professor Valdés have a dynamic, energetic conversation,” Hardison said. “They’re talking about Professor Valdés’ research, but they’re also talking about popular culture – they’re talking about Beyoncé … Professor Valdés is also offering helpful information for people who are thinking about graduate study and going into the profession.”
Along with the podcast, they will upload clips from the event with Duke.
HBW will be celebrating 40 years of existence in 2023, and it has been active at KU for more than 20 years, Hardison said. Looking ahead, she is excited for HBW to keep the momentum going.
“We’re really proud of the work that our students are doing, and we’re really excited about the ideas that they have [about] broadening our understanding of literature but also innovating how we access it,” Hardison said. “We look forward to doing more by engaging with the local community and broadening our audience.”
View “Black Beyond Borders,” which will be online until early March and archived after, at this link. Additional pieces will be added to the HBW website in January when students are back on campus after break.
Those interested in learning more can see BLS projects from previous years at this link.