The Gwendolyn Brooks Conference for Black Literature and Creative Writing welcomes
the Affrilachian Poets to Chicago State University!
The Affrilachian Poets are an ensemble of African-American writers who challenge
simple notions of an all white Appalachian region and culture while drawing on traditions
such as the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, and experiences of the African
Diaspora. The poetry of the Affrilachian Poets celebrates this complex African American
heritage through food, music, and land. The Affrilachian Poets were founded by Frank
X Walker, Nikky Finney, and Ricardo Nazario y Colon in 1991 at the University of
Kentucky. Founding members also include Crystal Wilkinson, Kelly Norman Ellis, and
Mitchell L.H. Douglass. Chicago State alumni Randall Horton and Parneshia Jones are
members of this ensemble now celebrating its 20th anniversary. PBS produced a feature-length
documentary about the Affrilachian Poets in 2000, and the group has been featured
in numerous magazines and journals. Their work inspired the creation of Pluck! The
Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture, published by the University of Kentucky
Poet Nikky Finney headlines the Gwendolyn Brooks Spotlight Reading
Nikky Finney was born at the rim of the Atlantic Ocean, in South Carolina, in 1957. The daughter
of activists and educators, she began writing in the midst of the Civil Rights and
Black Arts Movements. With these instrumental eras circling her, Finney’s work provides
first-person literary accounts to some of the most important events in American history.
Educated at Talladega and Atlanta University, Finney cultivated her craft under
the direction of African American scholars such as Gloria Wade Gales and chance encounters
with the likes of Nikki Giovanni, who took an interest in Finney’s work and became
an ever-present mentor. Finney credits the words of Gwendolyn Brooks as well as Walt
Whitman and the surroundings of Talladega’s famous Amistad murals, painted by world-renowned
Hale Woodruff, to her beginnings as a writer.
After her formal education, Finney spent several years working and studying with
writers like Toni Cade Bambara who formed the Pamoja writing group in Atlanta before
immersing herself as an educator, activist and artist in the progressive San Francisco
artist movement in the mid-eighties. In 1985, and at the age of 26, Finney’s debut
collection of poetry,On Wings Made of Guaze, was published by William Morrow (a division of HaperCollins). Finney’s next full-length
collection of poetry and portraits,RICE(Sister Vision Press, 1995), was awarded the PEN America-Open Book Award, which was
followed by a collection of short stories entitledHeartwood(University Press of Kentucky, 1998). Her next full-length poetry collection,The World Is Round(Inner Light Books, 2003) was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Award sponsored by the
Independent Booksellers Association. In 2007, Finney edited the anthology,The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South(University of Georgia Press/Cave Canem), which has become an essential compilation
of contemporary African American writers. Her fourth full-length collection of poetry,Head Off & Split, was published by Northwestern University Press in February 2011.
Finney and her work have been featured on Russell Simmons DEF Poetry (HBO series),
renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson’s feature “The Meaning of Food” (a PBS production)
and National Public Radio. Her work has been praised by Walter Mosley, Nikki Giovanni,
and Gloria Naylor. Finney has held distinguished posts at Berea College as the Goode
Chair in the Humanities and Smith College as the Grace Hazard Conklin Writer-in-Residence.
Finney is currently an associate professor at the University Kentucky and serves
on the boards of Cave Canem and the South Carolina Poetry Initiative and, additionally,
has served as a judge for theMaureen Egen Writers Exchangesponsored by Poets & Writers,
Inc. She is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets.
Mitchell L. H.Douglas is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Indiana University-Purdue University,
Indianapolis. His poems have appeared inCallaloo,Crab Orchard Review,Ninth Letterand the anthologiesThe Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South(University of Georgia Press) andZoland Poetry No. 2(Zoland Books) among others. A Cave Canem fellow and cofounder of the Affrilachian
Poets, his debut collection,Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem(Red Hen Press, 2009) was nominated for a 2010 NAACP Image Award in the Outstanding
Literary Work-Poetry category and a 2010 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.Douglas, a Louisville
native, resides in Indianapolis.
Recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award and the Margaret Walker Short Story
Award, Parneshia Jones is published in several anthologies includingThe Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South;Poetry Speaks Who I Am,a book/CD compilation of classic and contemporary poetry; andShe Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems, edited by Caroline Kennedy.Jones has been featured on Chicago Public Radio-Chicago
Amplified Series and is a member of the Affrilachian Poets, a collective of Black
voices from Appalachia. She has performed her work all over the United States including
the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City, the Art Institute in Chicago, and Vanderbilt
In 2009, Parneshia was commissioned by Art for Humanity and the city of Chicago, to
write a poem for an exhibition unveiled in Durban, South Africa during the 2010
World Cup. She was also commissioned by ShoreFront Legacy to write a poem about the
history of African Americans on the North Shores of Chicago. Jones is the head of
sales and international rights for Northwestern University Press and conducts publishing
workshops and lectures for creative writing programs and writers. She is currently
on the board of the Cave Canem, the Guild Complex and the advisory board ofUni-Verse of Poetry: A United Nations of Poetry. She serves as a judge for the Cave Canem Northwestern
University Press Poetry Prize. She is a Ragdale fellow and holds a M.F.A from Spalding
Kelly Norman Ellis is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Chicago State University.
She is also the associate director of the MFA in Creative Writing program as CSU.
She is a poet whose work has appeared inSisterfire: Black Womanist Fiction and Poetry,Spirit and Flame,Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and
Art,Boomer Girls,Essence Magazine,Obsidian,Calyx, andCornbread Nation. She is a recipient of a Kentucky Foundation for Women writer’s grant and is a
Cave Canem fellow and founding member of the Affrilachian Poets. Her first collection
of poetryTougaloo Blueswas published by Third World Press in 2003. Dr. Ellis is at work on a new collection
entitledThe Shoe Cobbler’s Daughters. Currently she lives on Chicago’s south side with her partner Kevin and their daughter
Quraysh Ali Lansana is author of five poetry books, including They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems (Third World Press, 2004); a children's book entitled The Big World (Addison-Wesley, 1998); and editor of eight anthologies, including Dream of A Word: The Tia Chucha Press Poetry Anthology (Tia Chucha Press, 2006). He is Director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black
Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University, where he is also Associate
Professor of English and Creative Writing. He is a former faculty member of the Drama
Division of The Juilliard School and former Associate Editor-Poetry for Black Issues Book Review. Quraysh earned a Masters of Fine Arts degree at the Creative Writing Program at New
York University, where he was a Departmental Fellow. Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy & Social Justice in Classroom
& Community (with Georgia A. Popoff) was published in January 2011 by Teachers and Writers Collaborative.
He currently serves as a Contributing Editor for The Writer’s Chronicle of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.
Thomas Sayers Ellis, co-founded The Dark Room Collective (in Cambridge, Massachusetts); and received
his M.F.A. from Brown University. He is the author ofThe Maverick Room(2005), which won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award, and a recipient of a Mrs.
Giles Whiting Writers’ Award. His poems and photographs have appeared in numerous
journals and anthologies, includingCallaloo, Best American Poetry (1997, 2001 and 2010), Grand Street, The Baffler,
Jubilat, Tin House, Poetry,andThe Nation. He is also an Assistant Professor of Writing at Sarah Lawrence College, a faculty
member of the Lesley University low-residency M.F.A Program and a Caven Canem faculty
member. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and is currently working onThe Go-Go Book: People in the Pocket in Washington, D.C.A photographer and poet his new collection of poetry,Skin, Inc.,has just appeared from Graywolf Press.
Ifa Bayeza is an award-winning author, playwright, producer, composer and conceptual artist.
Her plays include Amistad Voices, Club Harlem, Kid Zero and Homer G & the Rhapsodies, for which she received a Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays fellowship.
Her play The Ballad of Emmett Till received a 2007 Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Center Fellowship and had its world premiere
at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, winning the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Play. Hailed
as “breathtaking … brilliant,” “a masterful look at history,” “a marvelous celebration
of life,” and “a major American work,” The Ballad of Emmett Till received its West Coast premiere at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles in 2010,
winning four Ovations Awards, including Best Production of a Play, and five Drama
Desk Critics Award nominations. Bayeza served as the original dramaturg and set designer
for her sister Ntozake Shange’s landmark production of forcolored girls… at the Public Theater. She and Shange have co-authored a new novel, Some Sing, Some Cry, chronicling seven generations of women, the men and music in their lives. The novel
has been hailed as “gorgeous” (NY Times), “dazzling” (Essence), and a “musical, magical must-read!” (Elle) A graduate of Harvard University, Bayeza is a fellow of the Ellen Stone Belic
Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in Arts and Media, the Centennial fellow
of the Arna Bontemps Museum of African American History and a founding board member
of the SonEdna Foundation of Mississippi. She lives in Chicago.
Lawrence Jackson, a native of Baltimore, is Professor of English and African American Studies at
Emory University, where he specializes in African American literature and literary
history. Dr. Jackson earned his doctorate at Stanford University in English and American
literature in 1997, and he also holds a master’s degree from Ohio State University
and he completed his undergraduate work at Wesleyan University. He began his professional
career at Howard University, where he was promoted to associate professor in 2002.
In January 2003, Black Issues in Higher Education recognized Jackson as one of the outstanding African American Ph.D.’s of the new
millennium. He is a recipient of grants and fellowship awards from the National Endowment
for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation. He has been a Resident Fellow at Harvard
University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute and the National Center for the Humanities
in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. For over ten years, Lawrence Jackson has
been building a national audience for his work. He is a nationally recognized expert
on twentieth century African American writers and, perhaps, most broadly known for
his televised appearance in the broadcast of the P.B.S. documentary Ralph Ellison:
An American Journey (January 2002). In June of 2008 C-SPAN Book Notes TV carried
a panel discussion featuring Professor Jackson at the National Black Writers Conference
called “Historical Representations of Resistance and Transformation.” In October
of 2010, professor Jackson lectured and was interviewed widely in Maseru, Lesotho,
as an invited guest for the United States Embassy Lesotho. Professor Jackson was
also a member of the National Book Award non-fiction jury of 2003.
Dr. Jackson is the author of the acclaimed Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (2002), the first biography of Ellison. The New York Times welcomed his “rich and meticulous” biography and considered the book a literary
achievement that “evok[ed] Ellison’s environment brilliantly.”
His new book is the highly anticipated literary history The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics,
1934-1960 (Princeton University Press, 2010). Publisher’s Weekly called the book “monumental,” an “encyclopedic book [that] offers a chronological,
old-fashioned history of literature, covering a period desperately in need of thoroughgoing
research and detail, and presents a deeply documented, dense but thoroughly readable.”
They predict that the book will “guide the way African-American and American literature
Dr. Jackson has also published portions of his forthcoming Virginia family history
From the Staunton to the Dan in leading literary reviews. Southern Quarterly published his “The Will” in summer of 2009, and the New England Review carried “To Danville” in spring of 2007. The entire project, which chronicles the
lives of two enslaved male ancestors, Edward Jackson and Granville Hundley, lays
bare the difficult ground necessary to begin a recovery of the past broken apart
by enslavement. The book is expected in spring of 2012. He is currently writing a
full-length biography of the African American writer Chester Himes.
Paul Martínez Pompa is the author of My Kill Adore Him, which was selected by Martín Espada for the 2008 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize and was a ForeWord Magazine Book of the
Year finalist. His chapbook Pepper Spray was published by Momotombo Press in 2006. Martinez Pompa's poetry and prose have
been anthologized in Telling Tongues and The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry. He earned degrees from the University of Chicago and Indiana University, where he served as a poetry editor for Indiana Review.
Kristiana Colón is an adjunct English professor at Chicago State University, as well as an experienced
poet, performer, and burgeoning playwright. She is proud to see her work anthologized
in Dzanc Books'Best of the Web 2010and Haven Books'Not a Musecollection. Other recent publications includeOrgans of Vision and Speech, hinchas de poesia, Our Stories, chickenpinata,among several other online and print journals. Her short plays have recently appeared
in NYC Rebel Theater's Sunday Reading Series, American Theater Company's The Silver
Project, in Teatro Luna's 10 x 10 Festival in conjunction with the Goodman's Latino
Theater Festival, Dramatist Personae's Artist Gumbo series, and Simple Theater's
K.I.S.S. festival. Her most recent full-length projectone week in springwas a finalist for Victory Gardens'Ignitionfestival and had its first full staged reading in Teatro Luna's Lunadas series in
October 2010. Her first playbut i cd only whisperwas the 2nd place winner of the Theodore Ward Playwriting contest in 2008, and her
playthe darkest pithad its world premiere at the Prop Thtr in 2009. She is an MFA graduate from the
School of the Art Institute and has been seen on HBO'sDef Poetry Jam. More information aboutKristiana, as well as text, audio, and video samples of her work, can be found atwww.kristianacolon.com.
Duriel E. Harris is the author of Drag (Elixir Press, 2003) and Amnesiac: Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, 2010). A poet, performer, sound artist and scholar, Harris
holds degrees from Yale University and the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New
York University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois (Chicago) Program for
Writers. She has been awarded grants from the Illinois Arts Council and post-doctoral
residencies at the University of Illinois Chicago and the University of California,
Santa Barbara and is currently at work on AMNESIAC, a media art project funded in
part by the UCSB Center for Black Studies Race and Technology Initiative and an Illinois
State University, University Research Grant. A co-founder of the Black Took Collective
and Poetry Editor for Obsidian her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including A Best of Fence, African American Review, Encyclopedia, Mandorla, milk, nocturnes, The Ringing Ear, Shampoo and Xcp: Cross Cultural Poetics. Feature performances include appearances at The Babel Theatre (Beirut, Lebanon),
The Blue Note (Poznan, Poland), Dixon Place (NY), Links Hall (Chicago), MCA Denver,
and The Poetry Center (San Francisco). A recent resident at the Rockefeller Brothers’
Marcel Breuer House in Pocantico Hills, Harris is a Cave Canem and MacDowell Colony
fellow and a member of Douglas Ewart and Inventions free jazz ensemble. She is an
assistant professor of English and teaches creative writing, literature and poetics
at Illinois State University.
Sandra Jackson-Opoku was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. She attended Columbia College in Chicago
for three years, majoring in Journalism. She then transferred to the University of
Massachusetts, Amherst, where she changed her major to Communications/Afro-American
Studies, attaining her BA in 1976. During her college years Jackson-Opoku studied
under two people who she cites as literary influences, African writer: Chinua Achebe
and Caribbean writer Michael Thelwell. Jackson-Opoku also gains inspiration from
her vast experiences abroad. Her first novel, The River Where Blood Is Born, began as a travelogue from journals written as an exchange student in Nigeria in
the mid-1970's. The novel won the Black Caucus of the American Library Association
Award for Fiction in 1998. Jackson-Opoku has received several honors and awards including
a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and two Gwendolyn Brooks Poet Laureate Awards. She is also the author of the novel Hot Johnny (And The Women Who Loved Him). She is a faculty member of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Chicago State
Nnedi Okorafor is a novelist known for her complex characters and weaving Nigerian cultures and
settings into science fiction narratives. In a profile of Nnedi’s work titled “Weapons of Mass Creation”, The New York Times called Nnedi’s imagination “stunning”. Her YA novels includeZahrah the Windseeker(winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature),The Shadow Speaker(winner of the CBS Parallax Award) and Long Juju Man(winner of the Macmillan Prize for Africa). Her first adult novel, Who Fears Death, was chosen as a Best Book of 2010 by Amazon.com, Publishers Weekly and the School
Library Journal and is currently a Nebula Award finalist. Her YA novel Akata Witch (Penguin Books) was released April1, 2011. Okorafor holds a PhD in literature and
is a professor at Chicago State University. Visit Nnedi at nnedi.com.
Rev. Dr. Brenda Eatman Aghahowa is Associate Professor and former Chairperson of the Department of English, Communications,
Media Arts and Theatre at Chicago State University. She has earned both Bachelor’s
and Master’s degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism,
and also has earned the Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago,
with a specialty in Language, Literacy, and Rhetoric. A prolific writer, she has
more than 25 years’ experience as a reporter, editor, free lancer, public relations
account executive, and English educator. Dr. Aghahowa has made scholarly presentations
on issues related to rhetoric and retention of African-American college students
in venues around the United States and also in England for the Oxford Round Table.
Dr. Aghahowa’s many community service affiliations include membership in the international
public service sorority Delta Sigma Theta and board membership with Hope 4 Us Ministries,
a faith-based organization specializing in programs related to prison reentry, education,
intergenerational mentoring, financial literacy, and affordable housing. An ordained
minister in the United Church of Christ (UCC) since February 1988, Dr. Aghahowa has
served as an associate pastor in churches and as a chaplain in hospitals. She is
Pastor of the nondenominational fellowship Faith, Hope, and Love Ministries (Richton
Park, IL), which she founded in June 2009. She earned the Master’s of Religious
Studies and Doctor of Ministry degrees from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Her D.Min. dissertation has been published as the book, Praising in Black and White: Unity and Diversity in Christian Worship(Cleveland: United Church Press, 1996). She also is co-author with Oteia Bruce of,
The Sheriff Ain’t Comin’ Right Away: A Practical Guide for Those Facing Foreclosure
and Eviction (Chicago: TEAM Network, 2010, ISBN 978-0-578-07167-1). She is the mother of three
Pancho McFarland is associate professor of sociology at Chicago State University. He is author
of Chicano Rap: Gender and Violence in the Postindustrial Barrio (University of
Texas Press, 2008). In addition, he has published numerous articles concerning
hip hop and Latin@ culture and history. His latest book, New Millenial Mestizaje:
Hip Hop and Chicano Identity, is forthcoming from Michigan State University Press.
He is active in the local food justice movement.
Ra Perre L. Shelton got his start as a youth poetry slam champion. Ra has a Bachelor’s Degree in African-American
Studies, specializing in the Africana Diasporic experience of women and male-bodied
femaninity. In 2005, he became the youngest ever Def Jam poet featured on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, and the youngest champion for Chicago Black Pride’s “Windy City Slam.” Ra is a
2008 recipient of the Collin Higgins Foundation Activist Award where he was acknowledged
with a $10,000 grant for using his poetry as an effective means of social upward
mobility. He has worked with the Chicago Foundation for Women, POW WOW, Youth Pride
Center, the “Real Men Read” initiative, SANKOFA women’s organization and many other
organizations that promote the upward mobility of those who remain socially silenced
by cultral hegemony.
Adena Washington is a literary fiction writer completing her second year as an MFA student at Chicago
State University. She holds a BA in Journalism and a minor in English from The Ohio
State University. Her published work includes the article “Idiomatic Expressions,”
which appears in the Encyclopedia of Identity. Adena is currently working on her first novel.