In her purse, Vita Paladino keeps copies of letters written in 1960 by an alum thanking the University for creating scholarships for black students expelled from southern schools. Each is signed Martin. Paladino, director of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, fishes them out for Sam Cornish, the new poet laureate of Boston, who is visiting her for lunch. “It’s really something to be holding these,” he says.
Martin is, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), assassinated 40 years ago this Friday, April 4. The civil rights leader donated some 80,000 items to BU in 1964, including office files, manuscripts, awards, and correspondence. “My charge as curator of the King collection is to get out his word, his beliefs, and his message to this new generation,” says Paladino (MET’79, SSW’93).
To that end, the center has teamed up with the Poetry Society of America to present two star-studded events this week — on Wednesday, April 2, State of the Art: African-American Poetry Today, will celebrate the rich, wide-ranging voice of African-American poetry, and on Friday, April 4, Forty Years of Inspiration: The Cultural Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., will explore King’s impact on the arts. Both events are cosponsored by the Boston Review and Cave Canem, an African-American poetry group.
A stunning roster of voices and perspectives, including Cornish’s, will echo on campus: poets Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa, Major Jackson, Carl Phillips (GRS’92), Quincy Troupe, Afaa Michael Weaver, Elizabeth Alexander, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott (Hon.’93), a College of Arts and Sciences professor of creative writing. Cave Canem founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady will also appear. Rap and hip-hop artists Chuck D and Talib Kweli, as well as renowned opera singer Simon Estes, a College of Fine Arts professor of music, are scheduled for talks and performances.
“I always like multigenerational panels,” Paladino says. “You see this whole evolution of poetry.”
Bridging the themes of both evenings, as well as methods of delivery, Giovanni plans to perform a hip-hop version of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Kids really do think civil rights is a historical issue that doesn’t really concern them,” Paladino says. “This man is still an influence. We want to inspire kids to understand the issues.”
Cornish, who was appointed by the city of Boston as its first poet laureate in January, will introduce the poetry readings on Wednesday and sit on the King panel on Friday. Whether it’s poetry or politics, he says, the key is to locate and embrace the universal human experience.
“Even when I’m listening to Malcolm X, and he’s really burning up the air, he’s really talking about issues of respect and freedom, self-respect and self-regard,” Cornish says. “We all speak the same voice, but differently.”
Paladino reaches for a picture on her office shelf of Giovanni, a writing professor at Virginia Tech, fists clenched over her head at a memorial service after the 2007 shooting rampage that left 33 people dead. Giovanni, who first raised alarms over shooter Cho Seung-Hui’s disturbing classroom behavior and writings, delivered a stirring address at the service.
“She writes this poem that’s very powerful and just amazingly delivered, and people leapt to their feet and started to applaud, started singing the school football song, and it just built and built,” Paladino says. “This photo is of the moment when Nikki realizes she brought this on, her recognition that her poem made this happen. For a poet, that usually doesn’t happen, because poets are insular. They write in their hamlet, in their cave, and they don’t get a lot of connection with their audience.”
It’s that power of a shared humanity, exemplified by King, that Paladino and Cornish, as well as the other poets and panelists, want audience members to walk away feeling this week. Perhaps even forever changed.
State of the Art: African-American Poetry Today starts this afternoon, April 2, at 4 p.m. with a panel discussion. A poetry reading follows at 6:30 p.m. Forty Years of Inspiration: The Cultural Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., takes place on Friday, April 4, at 5:30 p.m. Both events will be held in the Metcalf Ballroom at the George Sherman Union, 775 Commonwealth Ave., and are free and open to the public. For more information, call 617-353-1218, or click here.
Caleb Daniloff can be reached at email@example.com.