During the week of Sept. 28 to Oct. 2, faculty from across Pitt are invited to symbolically “cancel” classes for a Black Study Intensive—a week in which the Center of African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP) will hold virtual performances and creative sessions open to any discipline and the general public.
“We want to do something for faculty to help them anchor their thinking around what it might mean to ‘do’ Black study. It’s not just sitting around reading a book,” said Dawn Lundy Martin, director and co-founder of the CAAPP. “This gives us an opportunity to be in conversation about this particular moment through the arts. And it gives us a way to come together in some way that we wouldn’t have been able to do before.”
To Martin, a poet and longtime activist, today’s racial justice movement feels different from years’ past.
“There’s a lot of energy behind today’s movement from a diverse group of people. It’s not only Black people, or people who have been affected by systemic racism in a negative way. There are a lot of allies,” she said. “It matters that there are allies on the front lines who are willing to risk arrest—around the country and around the world. That’s a big difference.”
Collective action and rebellion
Prior to coming to Pitt, where she also serves as professor in the Writing Program in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of English, Martin was active in the social justice movement, working to advance causes of environmental justice, LGBTQ rights and others. In 1992, along with three other women, Martin formed the Third Wave Fund foundation. At the time, she says, it was the only national young feminist organization in the country.
Drawing from those experiences, the award-winning poet, professor and essayist has spent the past few months thinking of ways to bring more people together in a time of social distancing to speak to the concerns of today’s moment, while putting creativity at the center.
“The best way to do anything is to brainstorm with people who think about things differently,” said Martin.
For Martin, that person was Angie Cruz, associate professor of Pitt’s Writing Program and faculty affiliate of CAAPP.
“The pandemic forced us to go online. We thought: how can we take advantage of this, rather than have it be a detriment? That’s when the big idea came to us,” said Martin.
Following their brainstorming session, Martin and Cruz invited the Pitt community to join CAAPP in a year of virtual programming with the theme of “Collective Action and Rebellion,” and incorporate into their syllabi some work of CAAPP invited guests: renowned Black artists of poetry, fiction, musical compositions, visual arts, scholarly essays and films.
Planning is well underway: CAAPP has already lined up artists including filmmaker Julie Dash, the first African American woman to produce an industry Hollywood film; scholar and writer Saidiya Hartman, recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship; critically acclaimed performance artist Daniel Alexander Jones; and composer, performer and writer Jerome Ellis.
“Especially lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that we as Black people engage with poetry and poetics as a space of imagination, rebellion and resistance,” said Ellis. “I was really drawn to the interdisciplinary spirit of the Black Study Intensive. Knowing that it was being hosted and envisioned by CAAPP, that made me really excited. These are ‘my people.’”
Ellis said some of CAAPP’s previous invited guests are his role models and mentors, even if from afar. “I feel very honored to be invited into a space that hosted these artists and human beings, from whom I’ve learned a lot.”
Martin said some of the artists part of the Black Study Intensive will hold sessions in pairs, creating juxtapositions that seem unlikely. “It’ll be an interesting surprise; they have their own ways of thinking and practice,” she said.
The weeklong Black Study Intensive will be co-sponsored by the Department of English, the Humanities Center, the Center for Creativity, the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series and the Office of the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the Dietrich School.
Thursday during the week of the Black Study Intensive will be dedicated to allowing everyone who participates to reflect on the week, and to create something based on provided prompts.
And those who don’t consider themselves the creative type need not be discouraged. Everyone is capable of creativity, said Martin. “It’s all about the imagination, accessing it and feeling free to do so,” she said.
Something we’ve never done before
Martin said that word about the Black Study Intensive has spread beyond Pitt—with colleagues at different universities inviting their students to join the conversation.
“This is giving us an opportunity to do something we’ve never done before,” said Martin, with the students in mind. “I really wanted to give students an experience to be really excited about in this moment, even though we can’t meet in a physical space.”
Although gatherings will look different this fall, Martin said that there’s a way the participants can create a different kind of intimacy in the virtual space. And in addition to feeling connected, Martin said what we need right now more than anything is empathy.
“Empathy is one thing that makes society great and it’s a challenge for us right now,” said Martin.
“Creativity helps one to step into those spaces of empathy. And as a poet—you have to do that in order to step outside yourself. It has to feel real.”
Schedule for Black Study Intensive
Monday, Sept. 28
1 p.m.: Opening talk by Yale scholar Emily Greenwood titled, "Overthrowing Deadly Metaphors"
6 p.m.: Public reading and conversation: Dionne Brand and Harryette Mullen, moderated by Emily Greenwood
Tuesday, Sept. 29
6 p.m.: Performance, readings and conversation with Saidiya Hartman, Jerome Ellis and Erica Hunt (participant moderator)
Wednesday, Sept. 30
6 p.m.: Poetry reading, photography and conversation with Aracelis Girmay and Zun Lee
Thursday, Oct. 1
Thinking in creative practice: a day of Creativity and reflection (prompts from all invited guests will be posted on the CAAPP website)
1 p.m.: Masterclass with Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon
Friday, Oct. 2
2p.m.: "Love is the Great Rebellion" with filmmakers Charles Burnett and Julie Dash (who were part of the L.A. Rebellion film movement) and participant moderator Daniel Alexander Jones.
More about CAAPP
Founded in 2016 by Martin along with poets Terrance Hayes, a MacArthur Fellow, and Yona Harvey, associate professor in Pitt’s Department of English, CAAPP is a creative think tank for African American and African diasporic poetries and poets.
Through vibrant live performances and programming, CAAPP has attracted featured guests such as esteemed artists Carrie Mae Weems, Claudia Rankine, Sonia Sanchez and Marilyn Nelson. The events aim to spark conversation and interdisciplinary conversation—with an emphasis on archiving the work for future generations.
CAAPP also takes pride in providing opportunities for poets and artists in the Pittsburgh community and beyond—not just within academia. Many of CAAPP’s initiatives and efforts partner with local organizations, including City of Asylum, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, the August Wilson House and more.