Tag Archives: Black History Month


Audre Lorde was a black writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, teacher, and civil rights activist, who described herself as a “lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Her poems and prose largely dealt with issues related to civil rights, feminism, and the exploration of black female identity. Jerome Brooks says in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, “Lorde’s poetry of anger is perhaps her best-known work.”

Lorde was born in New York City on February 18, 1934. Her parents were Caribbean immigrants who settled in Harlem. Lorde learned to read and write at a young age, and wrote her first poem when she was in the 8th grade. She went on to attend a high school for gifted students. It was during college that she came to identify herself as a lesbian and a poet.

She went on to earn a master’s degree in Library Science at Columbia University. She served as a librarian in New York public schools from 1961 through 1968, when her first volume of poetry, First Cities, was published. In 1962, Lorde married Edward Rollins, with whom she had two children and later divorced. She spent time as writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Her second volume of poetry, Cables to Rage, came out of her time and experiences there.

Lorde went on to become a visiting professor in Berlin, Germany at the Free University of Berlin. While in Germany, she was influential in the start of the Afro-German movement. “Instead of fighting systemic issues through violence, Lorde thought that language was a powerful form of resistance and encouraged the women of Germany to speak up instead of fight back.” (Piesche, Peggy (2015). “Inscribing the Past, Anticipating the Future”). A documentary was made about her time in Berlin, “Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-1992.”

Audre Lorde battled cancer for the final fourteen years of her life. She wrote The Cancer Journals, which won the American Library Association Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award in 1981. Lorde once said, “I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain.”

In 1980, she co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher for women of color. She was also a founding member of Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa, an organization that worked to raise concerns about women under apartheid. From 1991 until her death in 1992, she was the New York State Poet Laureate. In 1992, she received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from Publishing Triangle. In an African naming ceremony before her death, she took the name Gamba Adisa, which means “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.”

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Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes frankly about race in contemporary America, directly addressing timely issues from racial bias in urban policing to President Obama’s legacy as our nation’s first black president. The MacArthur Foundation, which granted Coates a Genius Grant in 2015, wrote that Coates’ work “subtly embeds the present—in the form of anecdotes about himself or others—into historical analysis in order to illustrate how the implications of the past are still experienced by people today.”

Coates’ two books of nonfiction, The Beautiful Struggle (2008) and Between the World and Me (2015), have been especially praised for their ability to blend intensive research with deeply personal reflection. Professionally, Coates works as a journalist and is a regular correspondent for The Atlantic. He has also contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The Village Voice, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Time Magazine.

Coates grew up in Baltimore. His father, William Paul Coates, was both a Vietnam War veteran and a Black Panther. Coates’ comic book series, Black Panther, was Marvel’s #1 bestseller in April 2016.

In addition to his Genius Grant and McArthur Fellowship, Coates has received numerous awards, including being honored as the Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar at Massachusets Institute of Technology in 2012 and receiving the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015.

Video: Advice on Writing From The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. “The writer offers advice for eager young people.”

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Maya Angelou reciting her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993

Maya Angelou reciting her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

Writer, poet, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou had a powerful story to tell. She led an enormously influential life, using her 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings autobiography to share her personal experience with racism, trauma, family and journey of self-discovery.

Angelou was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1928. She was abused by her mother’s boyfriend, Freeman, who was murdered shortly after being released from jail. Following that incident, Angelou became mute for 5 years. As she explained it, “I thought my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”

But Angelou persisted, rediscovering her voice and using it to lead an impactful life and share her story. Her influence expanded far beyond her autobiographies, essays, and poetry. She’s credited with countless plays, movies and television shows as both an actress and a writer. She received dozens of awards and over 50 honorary degrees. Her role as a civil rights activist pushed her to the forefront where she served on both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter’s committee. At Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremony, she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning.”

In 2010, President Barrack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

President Barack Obama presenting Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2011

President Barack Obama presenting Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2011

When Angelou passed away in 2014, she left behind nothing but support for telling her story and the stereotypes she spent her whole life fighting against. CNN called her a “woman who pushed for justice and education and equality.” Obama said that the world lost “one of the brightest lights of our time—a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman. She inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.” Angelou’s works and her actions still speak for themselves.

It seems fitting to let Maya Angelou to have the last word. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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Malcolm X was a strong voice for human rights activism and an African-American Muslim minister born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. He laid the foundation for the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s. Unlike Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent protests, the Black Power movement incited more violence and asked for immediate radical action.

But Malcolm X’s early life wasn’t as outspoken. His father, a Baptist preacher, was killed when he was six and Malcolm was put in foster care. By the age of 20, he was in prison serving time for larceny and breaking and entering. It was after his release the he joined the Nation of Islam, an African-American political and religious movement, and became a powerful leader.

This strong foothold in the civil rights movement came at a cost: Malcolm X became a target. He survived multiple assassination attempts, forcing him to travel with a team of bodyguards. In 1965, his family’s home was firebombed (fortunately, with no injuries). Just a week later, he was assassinated in the Manhattan Audubon Ballroom. An astounding fifteen hundred people came to his Harlem funeral.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965, the result of a collaboration between himself and journalist Alex Haley. Eliot Fremont-Smith, reviewing The Autobiography of Malcolm X for The New York Times that same year, describes it as “extraordinary” and says it is a “brilliant, painful, important book.” The words Malcolm X left behind still resonate today, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement: “You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”

Video: A short biography of Malcolm X, from Bio.

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Nearly 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, the nation still celebrates the impact he made fighting against black discrimination. For MLK Day on January 16th, over 1000 people showed up in Old Town Fort Collins to join in the MLK Day March [source http://source.colostate.edu/mlk-day-march-celebration-jan-16/]. The March ended at CSU with powerful poetry and essay readings, showing that King’s dream is still alive today.

CSU MLK Day Celebration

CSU MLK Day Celebration 2017

Martin Luther King Jr. was born Michael King Jr. in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929. King was an American Baptist minister but is better known for his role as a civil rights activist who practiced nonviolent protesting. In 1955, he led the Montgomery bus Boycott and founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference just two years later.

King’s speeches and letters, including the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, still have a lasting influence among the literary community. During the 1963 March on Washington, King spoke about his longstanding dream and the future he saw for America: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

One year after the March on Washington, President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited racial discrimination. That same year, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights activism and fight against the Jim Crow laws. He was the youngest man to receive the Nobel at the age of thirty-five.

Martin Luther King Jr had a dream that saw all men as truly equal. His words still incite passion and the hope of one day fulfilling his dream.

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Author Octavia Butler paved the way for African-American science fiction authors. Born in 1947 in Pasadena, California, Butler conquered obstacle after obstacle, from losing her father, living with dyslexia, and fighting stigmas against both women and African American writers. At the young age of 10, she begged her mother for a Remington typewriter so she could write out her own stories.

Her first novel, Patternmaster, was published in 1976 and followed a group of telepathic individuals known as Patternists, a story that eventually expanded into a larger series. By 1979 and the publication of Kindred, she was firmly established as an African American writer.  The protagonist of Kindred is an African American woman, and the story is part slave narrative, part time-travel tale. Through Kindred, she brought together critiques of both past and present societal hierarchies, both blended together in the science fiction genre.

Called the “grand dame of science fiction,” Butler fearlessly crossed many lines. She used her novels to challenge our way of thinking and show that humans, regardless of race, deal with the same problems across all history and time. In an interview with Charlie Rose, she said, “I write about people and the different ways of being human.” Her work has been categorized as Afrofuturism, but her works often revolves around a multi-ethnic, or multi-species, world.

In 1984, Butler won both the Hugo Award for Best Short Story and the Nebula Award for Best Novelette. By 1995, she was the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant.

Butler changed the way we look at science fiction, as well as proving that African American Literature isn’t limited to certain literary genres.


Video: Octavia Butler interviewed by Charlie Rose in a show that aired June 1, 2000. Find the transcript of the full video here: https://charlierose.com/videos/28978

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Although Zora Neale Hurston is most known for her novel Their Eyes Are Watching God, published in 1937, she authored numerous works of literature in the first half of the 20th century, including novels, short stories, plays, a collection of southern African-American folklore, and an autobiography.

Hurston was born in January 1891 and grew up in Eatonville, Florida, an all-black community near Orlando. She said that she had a very comfortable, happy childhood until her mother died in 1904. After her father remarried, Hurston was shuffled between various family members until she left home to work as a maid to a troupe of travelling performers. She lied about her age throughout her life, starting when she reported her birth year as 1901 in order to complete high school, because, at age 26, she would have been too old to qualify for free public schooling.

Hurston went on to attend Howard University and Barnard College in the early 20s, around the same time that she started publishing short stories in literary magazines. She began to receive wide-spread recognition for her work after a short story, “Spunk,” and a play, Color Struck, received second place in a literary contest from Opportunity magazine.

Even during her lifetime, Hurston was considered to be one of the most influential writers of the Harlem Renaissance, befriending literary greats such as Langston Hughes. Despite her success as a writer, Hurston nonetheless lived most of her life in poverty. Because of this, her grave was unmarked until Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, installed a headstone in 1973.

Walker campaigned for a revival of Hurston’s work, bringing her into the literary canon. Today, Hurston is read widely by students and scholars.

Video: Zora Neale Hurston – American Folklorist, from Bio.

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Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa isn’t just an important author and relevant figure in the celebration of Black History month, he’s important to us personally — as he is an English department alumnus and beloved member of our “Ramily.”

Komunyakaa was born and grew up in the small town of Bogalusa, Louisiana, before and during the Civil Rights era. He served a tour of Army duty during the Vietnam War, when he acted as a journalist for the military paper, covering major actions, interviewing fellow soldiers and publishing articles on Vietnamese history and literature. Upon his return to the states he turned to poetry, eventually becoming one of the most popular and important American writers of his generation. Yusef obtained his bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs in 1975, an MA in creative writing from Colorado State University in 1978, and an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine in 1980.

Komunyakaa was selected as the 2015 CLA Honor Alumnus. He came to campus to give a reading and receive his award. Professor Emeritus Bill Tremblay has known Yusef since he was a student at CSU. In nominating him for the alumni award, Bill wrote:

Early on, Yusef was able to make his poetry out of a fusion between music and magic so that it would be a continuous revelation of the powers that spring from human desires and dreams. The intelligence of his poems reaches back into his formative years when as a child he played beneath the floorboards of his front porch and listened intently so that—as he says in one of his poems about his youth—”I knows things I ain’t suppose to know”—about the mysterious power of the adult world. The speakers of his poems are witnesses to the mystery and power of the spirit world—a world of hoodoo and juju—that is alive and working overtime to generate his extraordinary vision.

Yusef Komunyakaa’s books of poetry include Taboo, Dien Cai Dau, Neon Vernacular (for which he received the Pulitzer Prize), The Chameleon Couch, and the forthcoming The Emperor of Water Clocks (FSG). He has been the recipient of numerous awards including the William Faulkner Prize (Université Rennes, France), the Kingsley Tufts Award for Poetry, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, and the 2011 Wallace Stevens Award.  His plays, performance art and libretti have been performed internationally, and include Slipknot, Wakonda’s Dream, Nine BridgesBack, Saturnalia, Testimony, The Mercy Suite, and Gilgamesh (a verse play) with Chad Gracia. He is Global Distinguished Professor of English at New York University.

Komunyakaa’s been called both a “jazz poet” and a “soldier poet.” He rejects the “write what you know” model in favor of “write what you are willing to discover.” His advice to newcomers, readers and writers of poetry is “Be inquisitive, and not just for the sake of information … but because I do think that it keeps us connected to who we are. Life is celebration and confrontation, the same as poetry.” Read more about him and his visit here: Pulitzer Prize Winner Komunyakaa Returns to CSU for Poetry Reading.

Video: Yusef Komunyakaa reads w/ music by David Cieri + Mike Brown

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Image by Art Shay

Image by Art Shay, Gwendolyn Brooks on the front porch of her home in Chicago

According a biography on the Poetry Foundation, “Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the most highly regarded, highly influential, and widely read poets of 20th-century American poetry.” Most notably, she was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. She wrote articles, short stories, poetry (publishing more than 20 collections of her work), books for children, a novel, and two autobiographies. She was also a teacher, a professor of creative writing at many different universities, even though she didn’t have a university degree of her own. “I’ve had very little formal education in anything. I went to a junior college in Chicago… That is the limit of my formal education. I did not consider pursuing a four-year degree. I knew that I was going to be a writer.”

Born in Kansas, Brooks’s was raised in Chicago, and lived there until her death on December 3, 2000. Her father was a janitor who’d wanted to be a doctor, and her mother was a teacher who was also a classically trained pianist. They nurtured their daughter’s love of reading and writing. Only 13 when she published her first poem, by 16 she had published approximately 75 poems. She published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945, and the book (which was an instant success) lead to a Guggenheim Fellowship and other honors. Describing her writing process in a 1994 interview, she said, “I write and rewrite and ask myself the sterling question – Is this really what I want to say? With an emphasis on really and I. ”

Her earlier work represented black lives as they were being lived, while her later work became more overtly political. At 68 years old, she was the first woman appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, (a post now known as Poet Laureate). She also served as poet laureate of Illinois — appointed in 1968, she held the position until she died. A junior high school in Illinois was named for her, and Western Illinois University is home to the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for African-American Literature.


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Today’s featured author is a bit of a departure. Up to now, we’ve been featuring historical figures. Today, we are featuring a modern day historian. Ibram X. Kendi is a New York Times best-selling author and award-winning historian at the University of Florida. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction, (read the rest of his bio on his website: http://www.ibram.org/bio).

Lucky for you, he’s on campus — TODAY! Get yourself to the Lory Student Center Grey Rock Room at 6 pm tonight to hear him speak. While you are at it, get a copy of his award winning book. It is compelling, provocative, and timely. The Root, who says the book should be required reading, describes it this way, “Kendi has done something that’s damn near impossible: write a book about racism that breaks new ground, while being written in a way that’s accessible to the nonacademic. If you’ve ever been interested in how racist ideas spread throughout the United States, this is the book to read.” Kendi is currently working on three more books: Black Apple: A History of Black Power and Malcolm X, 1954-1974, (under contact with NYU Press), as well two follow up trade books to Stamped: (1) How to be An Antiracist and (2) Bones of Inequality: A Narrative History of Racist Policies in America.



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