Even though I posted about my visit to Menoufiya, I did not really talk much about my talk. And I guess I am not really going to do much of that sort of thing here. Briefly, however, my presentation “Langston Hughes, Patrice Lumumba, and the Black Arts Movement” considered the last decade of Hughes’s career. I tried to situate his work as a sort of prototype of the Black Arts Movement, with the figure of Lumumba being central to my understanding of the political dimensions of Hughes’s poetics. There were some challenges is trying to balance a presentation of material that is accessible to an audience of non-specialists but that still represents some my scholarship. As the second part of the program, we screened an excerpt for Eyes on the Prize called “Ain’t Gonna Shuffle No More” that covered Muhammad Ali’s conversion to Islam, the student movement at Howard University, and the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana.
My work is my work, but what made it most interesting for me at Menouifya were the comments and questions I received from colleague and students in attendance. Among the questions I was asked were several about the relationship between African American literature and other ethnic American writing, which is increasingly gaining some attention among Egyptian readers who have, justifiably, tired of the more milquetoast tradition associate with the U. S. One of my colleagues pointed out how often Egyptian scholars are drawn to African American literature, which is a great observation. I met colleagues who have written theses and dissertations on Baldwin, Baraka, Dunbar, etc., and while this is still anecdotal, it is worth contemplating.
There were some questions about shifting racial terminology (i.e. why does this poem use the term “Negro”?) which then ties into questions about hip-hop and other about a directness of the language of the Black Arts movement poetry. One question extended this to Lumumba in a way I found interesting—Lumumba’s independence day speech in front of Baudouin in Kinshasa on June 30, 1960, uses the same directness and “impoliteness” that came to be associated with the Black Arts Movement. Is Lumumba the first Black Arts Movement poet?
After the film, there were lots of questions about Islam in the US, and I tried to give the history of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz’s movement toward Sunni Islam, and offered a longer historical overview of African American Islam (which is an area of research I really need to return to). There was another thoughtful question about Obama’s election, and how that has or has not changed the racial landscape described in these poems. In other words, is his election a representative act or is it more idiosyncratic?
I spent some time talking about Hughes’s masterpiece Ask Your Mama. And I was suddenly aware of my audience. I thought, how can I translate “Ask Your Mama” into Arabic? I did my best to say something about the significance of signifying, and asked the audience. Thankfully some colleagues were able to offer if not a direct translation, then at least an equivalent. But whatever was said did elicit some uncomfortable chuckles from the crowd. I should have written it down.