The Gwendolyn Brooks Conference for Black Literature and Creative Writing

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.

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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.

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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 University.

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 University.

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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 Naomi Zora.

Featured Writers

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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.

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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.

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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 for colored 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.

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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 is studied.”

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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 University.

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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, 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

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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 biological children.

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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.

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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.