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African-American literary and musical voices will fill the Paul Robeson Center at Rutgers-Newark, on Feb. 18 as scholars and interested public gather to explore black influence on American culture through the Marion Thompson Wright (MTW) Lecture Series, Black Creativity and Modern American Life. The Robeson Center is at 350 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard on the Newark campus.

The oldest and one of the most prestigious scholarly celebrations of Black History Month, the series this year will delve into the traditions of black Americans, those who placed black speech, music and movement at the center of American culture making it truly distinctive and unique.

“A growing number of Americans have discovered that black voices are at the center of American culture; that discovery has helped guide the nation toward a more sophisticated understanding of its history,” said Clement Alexander Price, co-founder of the lecture series and director of the Institute for Ethnicity, Culture and The Modern Experience (IECME), a MTW series sponsor.

The theme for the MTW program this year is not grounded by a specific historical event or cultural anniversary, rather it revolves around the black voice, be it literary, musical or even the voice of movement, in American culture. Series scholars will present the black voice as music, arguing that writers’ words are music in the same tradition as jazz, blues, gospel and be-bop.

Keynote speaker Cheryl Wall, a Rutgers-New Brunswick English professor, borrowed a musical term as the title of her work exploring the voices and literary techniques of black women writers in “Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage and Literary Tradition.”

Wall has taken “worrying the line” from blues tradition in which musicians worry the line or break musical phrases by changing pitch or adding embellishments -- a shout, words or repeated sounds -- to emphasize a musical passage.

Just as the musicians break traditional phraseology, so too, did these early 20th Century women writers subvert literary convention and improvise on established literary tradition. These breaks in phraseology account for missing personal and cultural history and include the creation of spectral characters and dream interpretation.

“My aim was to reach more than the few hundred scholars in my field and to inspire fans of black women writers to read and reread some of the classic works,” Wall said.

One of the nation’s foremost authorities on jazz and black literature, Robert O'Meally, currently sitting as the Zora Neale Hurston professor of English at Columbia University, will offer comment on Wall’s work. His presentation; an “Ecstasy of Influence: Celebrating Professor Wall's "Worrying the Line" will follow her morning lecture.

Launched in 1981, the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series has been bringing scholars, history buffs and the public together to learn about the African American experience from the nation’s experts in the field.

“It’s the perfect forum for scholars and ordinary people to come together to share their thoughts and experiences and to exchange ideas,” said Price who suggested that anyone interested in attending the free program pre-register.

“The series takes in-depth, thought-provoking looks at issues with a deep impact on the past, present and future of New Jersey and its Afro-American population in particular, and black Americans in general,” said Giles R. Wright of the New Jersey Historical Commission and co-founder of the series.

Hailing the importance of the 26-year-old program, Rutgers University President Dr. Richard McCormick said, “This annual commemoration has taken on historic meaning for scholars and lay people from throughout New Jersey and across the country, who are drawn to the Newark campus each February to study, learn and discuss how events and individuals in our African American communities have influenced American arts, history,
education and culture. Rutgers is proud of this distinguished lecture series. I personally salute Drs. Price and Wright for their commitment to enlisting some of the brightest and most noteworthy scholars in the country to participate in this series.”

The program was named for East Orange native Dr. Marion Thompson Wright, a pioneer in African American historiography and race relations in New Jersey, who served for many years on the faculty of Howard University. An honors graduate of Newark’s Barringer High School and Columbia University’s Teachers College Class of 1938, she was the first professionally trained woman historian in the United States.

“The renown and respect that this esteemed lecture series has earned are a tribute to Rutgers and the City of Newark,” said Rutgers Provost Dr. Steven Diner. “Countless historians, scholars and interested individuals have attended this program over its long history, and as now as it enters its 26th year, we look forward to providing a new generation of students, academicians and the interested public with thoughtful information and a provocative exchange of ideas,” he added.

An educator by profession, Newark Mayor Sharpe James is eagerly anticipating this year’s lecture series. He is proud of the role his city, with its large and diverse population; more than one-half African-American, has played in the growth and prestige of the lecture series.

“Over the years, the MTW lecture series has drawn thousands of people from across New Jersey and around the country to Rutgers-Newark for a unique celebration of Black History Month,” said Mayor Sharpe James. “This is a wonderful forum where scholars and regular people can share thoughts and exchange ideas.”

The afternoon session starts at 1:30 p.m. with dance by Newark native and Senior Arts High School dance major Justin Dominic Melvin. He is currently a pre-ballet teacher at the Newark School of the Arts and teaches hip-hop at the Queen of Angels School in the city. He has danced in the Queen Latifah Show, Amateur Night, Showtime at the Apollo and the NJ Performing Arts Center in the Harlem Nutcracker and Dance Jam.

His performance will be interpreted by Brenda Dixon Gottschild, a professor of dance at Temple University. A dance performer/researcher, Gottschild views dance as a measure of society and barometer of culture. She is the author of “Researching Performance: The (Black) Dancing Body as a Measure of Culture.”

Renee Ater, a University of Maryland professor with the department of Art History and Archaeology, will explore “Aaron Douglas’s Into Bondage and Aspiration: The Representation of Race, History, and Modern American Life at the Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936.”

Author, poet, critic and lecturer A.B. Spellman, formerly of the National Endowment for the Arts will round out the lecture portion of the program. Spellman started his career there as director of the expansion arts program and spent the last decade as the deputy chairman.

An expert on jazz, Spellman is the author of “Four Lives in the BeBop Business; now available as “Four Jazz Lives,” and other works of poetry and critical analysis. He has served on numerous arts panels. Spellman will explore “The Black Arts Movement: Social Activism as Esthetic Guide,” during the afternoon. He returns to the Marion Thompson Wright lecture series after a 24-year absence.

Wrapping up the series is a live jazz performance by the Steve and Iqua Colson Sextet followed by a wine and cheese interlude during which the professors and public can confer and socialize. The lecture runs from registration and coffee at 8:30 a.m., through 3:30 p.m.

In addition to the IECME, the lecture series is sponsored by the Federated Department of History, Rutgers-Newark, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the New Jersey Historical Commission/Department of State.

Co-sponsors include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Newark Chapter; Rutgers/NJIT History Club; The Program in African American Studies, Princeton University; The Organization of Black Faculty & Staff, Rutgers University - Newark; The Office of Student Activities, Rutgers-Newark; The Center for African Studies, Rutgers University; Department ofHistory, Seton Hall University; The Newark Arts Council; The Newark Museum; The Newark Public Library; Newark Public Schools; The New Jersey Historical Society; the Marion Thompson Wright Study Club; The Paul Robeson Cultural Center; NJPAC Alternate Routes.

For Information Contact:
Marisa Pierson (973) 353-1871, Ext. 11

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