Furious Flower 25th Anniversary Celebration: Day One

Jericho Brown, Maryemma Graham, Andrew Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander , Rance Bailey-Graham, Portia Owusu, Ayesha Hardison, John Edgar Tidwell, Rita Dove, DaMaris Hill, Lacey McAfee, Mona Ahmed, and Darryl Lynn Dance.
Photo credits: C.B. Claiborne

Furious Flower Poetry Center has been at the forefront of Black poetry for 25 years. As the nation’s first academic center for Black poetry, Furious Flower was founded on the campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and born out of a 1994 poetry festival titled “Furious Flower: A Revolution in African American Poetry,” organized by scholar Joanne Gabbin. The festival brought thirty presenters to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to discuss Black poetry with scholars, poets, and lovers of literature. The Center gets its name from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “The Second Sermon on the Warpland” in which she writes, “The time cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.” Since its inception, Furious Flower has held numerous conferences, yearly summer camps, workshops, and published an online literary journal “The Fight & The Fiddle” in 2016. On September 28 through September 30 poets, friends and supporters from all over the world gathered to celebrate the work of Furious Flower and Black poetry, and what better place to celebrate both than at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)? To convene and celebrate the past, present, and future of Black poetry at the NMAAHC, surrounded by remnants of Black history and culture with a blend of poets from various generations, shows the progress that has been made to recognize Black history and culture on domestic and international levels.  

Below is a response to Furious Flower’s 25th Anniversary Fundraiser from former and current HBW staff members and affiliates.

Lacey McAfee, Ed.S., Pennsylvania School Psychologist, and former Communications Specialist and Office Manager at the Project on the History of Black Writing 2010-2014:

Rita Dove reading unpublished poetry. Photo Credit: Mona Ahmed

I had the pleasure of being able to attend the Furious Flower anniversary gala after receiving an invitation from Dr. Maryemma Graham, due to working with the Project on the History of Black Writing during my four years at the University of Kansas. I was amazed at seeing the amount of people, which included some of the most talented poets, professors, and authors, all gathered in one place to celebrate Furious Flower and to continue to support and encourage Black poets. Attendees were given the honor of seeing United States Poet Laureates including Rita Dove, Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, and Amanda Gorman. Each of whom shared a poem, which encompassed a piece of their story or emotions they have felt while the room was hushed, taking in their words. At times during the readings, you could hear within the crowd brief agreements, identifying with what the poets were saying. I  listened in awe, amazed to be able to hear such great pieces that had meaning for each poet and its listeners. At times, I truly lost myself in their words. There were also beautiful contributions to those that recently passed, including the great Toni Morrison, and a fellow English professor who was a friend of Joanne Gabbin. The night then turned into a fun move and groove vibe as the Ranky Tanky jazz band played. You could see the excitement of students coming from other universities and states, being able to meet the very same poets and authors that encouraged them to further pursue their interests as the night turned into mingling, networking, and dancing.    

Portia Owusu, Ph.D., Visiting Assistant Professor / ACES Fellow of English in the Department of English at Texas A&M University: Over the course of three days, there were workshops, seminars, and readings that reflected on the past, the present and the future of African-American poetry. On the first day there was a benefit gala held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington D.C. Galas normally have two things in common: beautifully-dressed people and fundraising. The gala for the Furious Flower Center had all these elements, but it was different in that the focus of the night was not simply “give us your money.” On the contrary, the night showed everyone in attendance why the organization is worthy of support, financial or otherwise. The program showcased a diversity of talent in contemporary African-American poetry, some whose work has enjoyed the international platform and others who are lesser-known, but clearly ones to watch out for. Relating to the former, the occasion was delivered by Elizabeth Alexander. Alexander is a poet and a scholar and currently the President of the Andrew Mellon Foundation. To millions of people worldwide, she is also the poet who wrote and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s inauguration in 2008. Alexander’s opening words, apparently unprepared and improvised, awed the crowd in its authority and exaltation. It demonstrated the richness of the African-American vernacular tradition and its power to uplift on different occasions. It was hard to think about how anyone can follow Alexander after her impressive introduction, but a reading by Amanda Gorman, the first-ever U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate, aptly rose to the challenge. Gorman, a student of sociology at Harvard, read samples of her work. Delivered in the style of the spoken word, it was performative, daring and engaged. The maturity of Gorman’s writing and her passionate performance made it clear that she is a vision of the future of African-American poetry.  

Gorman was followed by readings from U.S. Poet Laureates Rita Dove, Natasha Trethewey, and Tracy K. Smith. All three read with the style and tenacity their works are known for. Dove delivered a fun and hilarious reading of an unpublished work that chronicles the various hairstyles of Black women. The roar of laughter from the crowd made Dove look like a stand-up comedian and testified to the ability of poetry to entertain. The mood, however, quickly turned with Trethewey’s reading of poems centered on themes of domestic abuse and spousal murder. The seriousness of these issues and its relevance in our contemporary society reminded the audience that the work of the Black poet is also to inform and to educate.  

Elizabeth Alexander giving the occasion at the Furious Flower Fundraiser Gala. Photo Credit: Mona Ahmed

Mona Ahmed, B.A., B.S., current Office Manager for the Project on the History of Black Writing and alumna of the University of Kansas: Furious Flower’s 25th Anniversary Fundraiser atmosphere was a mixture of Black regalness and a family reunion. The fundraiser gala was the kick-off event for celebration festivities. Elizabeth Alexander gave the occasion and a quote from her speech resonated with me throughout the weekend, “Even when you are not writing poems, you are being a poet. What does it mean to be a Black poet and walk in the world that way?” Alexander posed the question and by the end of the weekend, the Furious Flower Celebration had successfully answered. The first poetry readings of the evening were from United States Poet Laureates Rita Dove, Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, and National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, each offering a different perspective and representation of what is Black poetry and how they see and navigate the world as a Black poet. 

Check back for the conclusion to this two-part blog post about the Furious Flower 25th anniversary celebration.