P[ublishin’] ain’t Easy


This week I received the copy edited version of my first book manuscript.  I was exuberantly happy and excited to reach this point in the production process. I jumped right in to review the copy editor’s suggestions and queries—wondering if I was as good a writer and proofreader as I imagined. I mean, I have spent ***number of years perfecting my dissertation into an awesomely, publishable piece of scholarship worthy of being called such. It’s been a labor of love—and hate.  You know its hard out here for a….p—uh, a person who is trying to publish. Still, I am happy to finally be in this place.

It reminded me, however, that I still know very little about the publishing process. It seems I am learning as a go, unsure of what questions to ask and to whom to direct them. And what is this about creating my own index????  It is a lonely, scary world for the first time author.  I feel totally inept at managing the process.  I have tackled everything from securing copyright clearance for decades old blues songs, to negotiating permission from an artist to use his work as cover art, to then having to professionally scan the original art work that is in my possession, to contracting an indexer only to realize that I am, in fact, the best person to do the job. That’s not to mention actually formatting the manuscript according the publisher’s guidelines and all that that entails. 

It has been a learning process filled with anxiety, excitement, and the thrill of learning something new.  I’m am feeling real insecure about the index project.  I’ve convinced myself that I can, in fact, do the job, but I am not confident about final product.  I have no clue about the details and formatting that makes a really good index. It seems time consuming and the publisher has assured me that time is not on my side.  It can all be overwhelming at times and my stuff isn’t even in press yet! I am constantly asking myself, how could I have better prepared myself for this?  How could I have clued myself in to the process in a real, informed sort of way?

Don’t misunderstand me.  I read books on publishing and polled colleagues and mentors about the process. Most gave honest, though vague answers: the contract is pretty basic, pay someone to do your index, and it will take about a year from contract offer to book release.  Very few mentioned any of the leg work of securing permissions, cover art, or the possibility of creating your own index. 

The process has not been overly burdensome, but when you are behind the learning curve one may find themselves spending more time playing catch-up.  Now that I am (almost) fully initiated into the club of published scholars, I do not feel so anxious or uninformed about the process.  I have faced the gauntlet and survived another day.  Future monographs will certainly not provoke the cold sweats and nervous jitters as this very first one. I will keep you informed about the index—who knows how that will turn out? But it is my first and there is something inspiring about taking the time to learn the process the first go ‘round. 

I suppose it makes my entry into the profession official—almost the equivalent to dissertating and defending for the young professional.   I can dig it.  I just hope the next batch of newbie scholars can crack the code and know what they are in for prior to taking the leap.  I imagine it makes the process much more seamless. 

Conjuring Moments in African American Literature: Women, Spirit Work and Other Such Hoodoo will be available from Palgrave Macmillan Press in January 2013.

Finding Home in John Edgar Wideman’s Homewood

During my three week stay in Pennsylvania for the NEH Summer Institute on Contemporary African American literature, I decided to take the opportunity to visit the home of my paternal grandfather in nearby Pittsburgh. As some families are wont to do, mine took the liberty to write my father out of my personal narrative. It has only been in the last five years that I have been able to recover that history—discovering aunts, uncles, and cousins along the way. I’m especially proud to claim relation to Jazz Psalmist Todd Ledbetter—my “connect” in the steel city. 

Interestingly, the week leading up to my excursion Trudier Harris and Shirley Moody-Turner lectured on family folklore and Shirley even played a clip of a Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter recording—whom, it has been passed down through family lore, is a relative of my grandfather Louis Ledbetter.  I had intentions on exploring this connection in Pittsburgh, but you know what they say about intentions. My main purpose for visiting Pittsburgh was to visit my grandfather’s resting place—an item that is on my “bucket list”. 

Louis Ledbetter, WWII

In true fashion, my Uncle Todd gave me the grand tour of black Pittsburgh.  We started in the Hill District—he pointed to homes of famous black folk, old jazz clubs, and to my surprise—the YMCA where my grandfather worked as a young man and the family home of some cousins.  I, of course, was interested in the Hill from a literary perspective.  I recalled the day August Wilson died—I heard the news as I made the drive to campus to begin my comp exams. The possibility of having a family connection to this area had never occurred to me.  But I was in for quite a bit more—next stop: Homewood.

My grandfather, as it turns out, is buried in Homewood Cemetery. He owned a business in the neighborhood that John Edgar Wideman illuminates in his Homewood Trilogy: Damballah, Hiding Place, and Sent for You Yesterday. I was enthralled by all the literary connections I was making to my own genealogy. I had no idea my Ledbetter family was so connected to Black Pittsburgh. It was really gratifying.  I assumed my mission had been accomplished and I was content to spend the rest of my time getting better acquainted with my uncle. The Ancestors, however, had something else in mind.

Headstone II
Grandfather’s headstone in Homewood Cemetery

We visited a cousin, who had a wealth of information on our family tree. I spent hours at her home listening and recording names, dates, and hilarious tales about my pistol-toting great grandmother and my “man about the town” grandfather.  I recovered photos of ancestors in whom I could discern some of my own features.  Then cousin Val dropped a whammy on me. She recited the notes she had taken from her grandmother, my great, great Aunt Laura Lizzy:  “…they were married in 1883 in Kingstree, South Carolina…..Pero’s father was Calvin Cooper, his father was Cane Cooper…and they lived on Troublefield Plantation and each son was given a piece of the land…”.

I had one of those moments where you hear the record being scratched to a halt.  Come again? Did you just tell me the NAME of the plantation where my paternal ancestors were enslaved??? I felt like I was in a Toni Morrison novel. I could lay claim to my family’s own “Sweet Home” and the rememories that go along with it.  I was absolutely perplexed. I wanted to know how this tangible piece of our slave past survived? What was it about their experience at Troublefield (and the name is just ripe with irony)that made it a story to be passed on? My spirit was full and overwhelmed with all the information that was now at my finger tips.  I couldn’t wait to get home and begin a new line of research!

That was just the tip of the iceburg.  Our last stop was Uncle Todd’s childhood home.  I met my grandfather’s widow and moved through the intimate space of his home. Uncle Todd pulled out a scrapbook my grandfather made when he was 37 years old. It had all of his high school pictures (Class of 1937)—often the lone spot of color. But he was the star of the show! There were pictures signed with admiration and respect by his white football teammates that intimated a very different narrative than what I expected his experience to be. I can see the charisma and heavy swag he carried in this (one of my favorites) photo:

Louis Ledbetter Glee Club
South Hills High School Boys Glee Club, 1937

Uncle Todd also pulled out a “life mask” my grandfather made either in high school or shortly thereafter.  I could see every line and contour of his face. I could see how my nose is a tiny replica of his. I could put my face against his and steal an intimate moment between grandfather and granddaughter that I believed was lost to me. It was all so much to bear—heavy. I couldn’t contain everything I was feeling in one body.
                          Ledbetter life mask 2
I discovered more than I could have imagined in Pittsburgh.  I didn’t even get around to asking about Leadbelly, but I came away with a real sense of connection to black Pittsburgh, literary Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh that gave my ancestors a home during the first wave of the Great Migration.  I am enamored by the city and have an even greater appreciation for its history—a history I can share as part of my own.

Why I Love CLA (College Language Association)


I remember my first ever CLA Conference. I was finishing the final course of my doctoral degree and studying for my comprehensive exams.  It was April 2005 and the good colored folks were gathering at University of Georgia that year.  I had heard of CLA only the previous year, as my mentor and the other faculty of color at Florida State University were avid CLA-ers. If I was going to continue under their tutelage, I would have to be inducted into the CLA fold. I was excited and looking forward to the conference; I even chuckled at it being referred to as the “Colored” Language Association—a nod at both its cultural roots and the identity of its membership. I had no idea what I was in for.

Understanding that the study of Literature has the tendency to exclude and can be a lonely road for people of color, I was dumb-founded at the sheer number of scholars doing work in literatures and languages of the African Diaspora.  It was like I had died and my spirit flew off to Willow Springs.  Like Willow Springs, CLA exists between the control of two state apparatuses: the Modern Language Association on one hand and our home institutions on the other.  It is a place where students, faculty, and post-docs congregate to share and exchange knowledge; participate and engage in a black scholarly community; and support and expand an ever impressive web of professional networks. 

For a young, black, graduate student CLA presented a wealth of professional resources.  I had a chance meeting with Professor Bernard Bell—he, being without a car, happened upon my fellow graduate students and I who obliging gave the esteemed professor a ride to the local Kroger. He,  in turn, invited us to join his table at the banquet that evening.  He scrutinized my training in African American literature and schooled me over dinner and a few glasses of Riesling. It is an encounter I won’t soon forget as it prepared me for the later scrutiny I would face in my oral exams, my first job search, and, hell, the countless exchanges with colleagues who are yet and still uninformed about the vast tradition of African American letters.

As a professional, I still find CLA as equally amazing as I did as a graduate student.  Being of melanin-rich complexion and doing the work that I do, I am (as I find many other scholars of color are) continually faced with the challenges of being black in the Ivory Tower. Just when I am about to reach my limit of the academic fuckery that is wont to happen, April springs forward and I can find my reprieve in CLA.  I escape to reunite with colleagues, mentors, and for the first time in 2013—former graduate students Shauna Morgan Kirlew and Patricia Coloma Penate who are now among the professoriate. I cannot wait to seal the deal on my Life Membership in this organization that has been so central to my career growth.

CLA is a safe haven for this colored girl. I feast upon the plethora of scholarship on black literature and culture like Thabiti Lewis’s paper on teaching hip-hop aesthetics to a majority white student body or Mary B. Zeigler’s work on Gullah Geechee lexical heritage, or an entire panel on black vampires in Speculative Fiction.  I heal my professional aches and pains over tea and make new professional acquaintances at dinner. I gain new perspectives on my own work during the Q&A segment of my panels which always runs—always, always runs over time because of such engaging conversation and constructive criticism. 

But this is what happens at all professional conferences, right? I suppose on some level that is a correct assumption. I would interject, however, that the difference with CLA is that many of its members describe it as “home”. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a colleague put their experience at MLA or ALA in those terms.  Like Willow Springs, you have to be from there (CLA) to really understand how things take shape. If you are a scholar doing work in African American Literature or the literature and languages of the African Diaspora, you owe it to yourself to at least engage with this community once in your career. You have to put your hands in the care of CLA and believe you will be transformed. And you never know who will show up at CLA—you just may find yourself shaking hands with the greatest conjure woman on earth. Winking smile

Promotion and Tenure–The Long Sojourn


This August marks my sixth year in the professoriate.  It has been six years since I defended my dissertation and was hooded by my esteemed advisor Darryl Dickson-Carr.  Six years beyond the Ph.D. signifies another milestone in the academic career, particularly for the tenure track appointed, depending on which one of us takes a mind to it. In the strictest circles if one is not anxiously aspiring toward promotion and tenure, then the perception is that said person just isn’t intellectually productive and sharp enough to make the cut.

We all know the story. The hushed tone of voice when speaking of that colleague.  The sideways glance when someone asks when how long you have been out of graduate school and at so and so institution and your answer moves beyond that six year mark.  You explain, between nervous laughter and intimidation that you are still at the assistant professor rank, or, god forbid, relegated to a lower rank—adjunct, visiting, instructor. The conversation takes on a new direction—either one of pity or unsolicited mentoring.   You grin and bear it, feeling vulnerable to the whims of academic decorum.

Not only have I heard the story, I am living it.  I made a choice to leave, yes leave a perfectly good tenure-track position after putting in five years on the job. I cannot begin to even tell you what type of academic snubbing I have witnessed as a result of meeting other academics—usually of the tenured variety.  They offer their pity and heart-felt advice on how I should tighten up on my scholarship and wish me insincere luck on my next job search. None of these encounters last more than five minutes and no one cares to even inquire further into my circumstances. It operates like a type of academic bullying with all of the condescension and posturing.  

Spare me. I am neither an academic charity case, nor am I such a novice as not to understand the decision I made or build a strategy behind that decision. Obviously, the job was not “perfectly good” if I deemed it necessary to leave of my own accord and not because I wanted to avoid the tenure process—which is nine time out of ten always the unspoken assumption.

I admit, my transition was a bit unnerving.  I felt a little uneasy and quite insecure about how I would be perceived by my peers.  I did the nervous laughter dance and allowed the condescension to fly, believing it was just part of the hustle.   But now I have my academic weight up and I have met and had meaningful conversations with other people in the field who have opted to take the unconventional route to promotion and tenure. I am not an anomaly. I am not always already blacklisted. There will be no more bullying around this camp. 

Leaving tenure-land has meant churning out a manuscript or two, sharpening my grant writing skills, and hours upon hours of research and writing time. The University of Houston’s Visiting Scholar Initiative in African American Studies has allowed me to grant priority to my research in the early, budding period of my career—though very much off the tenure track—in a way my previous position would not (and I did give them an opportunity to match the deal in order for me to stay). Is not that the whole point of being among the  junior faculty in a research-oriented institution?  If veering off the track to pursue one’s research is not a worthy endeavor, then please explain to me what is?

Each path toward professional success (if that means tenure, great. If not, that’s great, too!) is a varied and winding road.  While I’m sure the sixth year rule shan’t be over turned in the near future, I am hopeful that the younger folk (and mid-career) realize that there are in fact many paths to tenure and it does not have to be the scary, gut-wrenching journey so many have trudged before us.  As I prepare for my second year as Visiting Scholar, I am empowered by my decision. I am free to sketch out my own plan and strategically place myself in a slightly more competitive position when I enter the job market.

The time I will have spent pursuing my research agenda, honing my craft, and expanding my network is invaluable to the goals I have set for myself. So please save the side eye and half-hearted inspirational speeches. I’ll get to tenure in my way and in my own right. I make no apologies for deviating from the script. It was the best thing that could have happened to my career.

African American Literary Studies and the Digital Humanities: Finding an Entrance


On my application for the NEH Summer Institute on Contemporary African American Literature I articulated my desire to think through and discover how African American literature could lend itself to a digital humanities project. I hoped to come away from the institute with a better understanding of what such a project would look like. I was anxious and excited to engage visiting lecturer Howard Ramsby on this very issue.  

I broached the subject with my fellow summer scholars, but as with other sessions we filled the time with phenomenal dialogue (on this particular day it was about Howard’s lecture on Afro-Futurism) that my inquiry did not receive much rotation. Maryemma Graham offered one response by extended an invitation to the group to attend the 2013 MLA Convention in Boston, at which three panels dedicated to this very topic will be on the program.  This was reassuring.  I’m glad to know that others in the profession have taken note of the absence of African American literature and culture among all of the hullabaloo over the digital humanities—more importantly, though, they are doing something about it.

I suppose I am invested in the answer to this question, not for my own research interests—though I certainly would like to delve into this new, sexy techno-savvy field—but more so for the sake of the tradition itself.  African American literature and culture as a field of study has endured its share of ambivalence among the more “traditional” academic disciplines.  It was not so long ago that it was considered unworthy of intellectual consideration.  I fear that if we—scholars who profess an expertise in African American literary studies—do not make our presence felt in digital scholarship then we will be left behind and perhaps even be placed in the position where we must, again, prove our worth.

As technology continues to advance and we are faced with virtual classrooms, interfacing with the cloud, and e-books, African American literature (and African American/Black/African Diaspora Studies for that matter) will have to fight our way across the digital divide.  I know that there are scholars out there doing the work, but across the board digital humanities is deficient in scholarly output that centers the history, literature, or cultural production of black folk. 

That is not to suggest that we are being denied access.  On the contrary, I believe there is ample opportunity and ample research funding to support projects that combine humanities scholarship with emerging technologies.  The question is why aren’t more of us doing this type of work? What are the obstacles standing in the way, if there are any? What type of projects can we conceive and feasibly see to completion? With whom should we be collaborating?

I am challenging myself to develop a digital humanities project.  I’m very unclear about what it will look like at this point, but I am committed to inserting African American literature into this trending discipline. Technology is the new frontier and its time for African American Literature to get on the bus.