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Local Lit: listening to Harriet Tubman

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In 2000, shortly before he left Chicago for New York University's MFA program, poet Quraysh Ali Lansana was chatting with his friend Zahra Baker about Harriet Tubman. They knew that the abolitionist had suffered from narcolepsy due to a childhood blow to the head, and wondered whether God had talked to the deeply religious Tubman whenever she passed out. "Zahra and I theorized," says Lansana, "that that's how Harriet received the guidance to do what she needed to do."

His conversation with Baker planted the seed for They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems, Lansana's thesis project and second full-length collection, due from Third World Press at the end of the month. For the next three years, as he pursued his degree and worked as an editor at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Lansana studied biographies of Tubman, listened to slave narratives to get a feel for the dialect of her era, and visited her home (now a museum) in Auburn, New York.

The resulting poems include a trilogy about the first of Tubman's 19 covert trips back to the south. She went to free her husband, but he had remarried. "She was crushed," says Lansana, but she took her heartache and channeled it into her work. "Those things that make us human, in the midst of living in whatever time period and through whatever struggles, those are the things that aren't commonly discussed when you're studying Harriet Tubman as a historic figure."

Now 39 and the director of Chicago State University's Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing, Lansana's had his own struggles. Born in Enid, Oklahoma, he dropped out of college for a job in journalism, but was fired after a year for tardiness. In 1988 he hopped a plane to Chicago with $13 in his pocket and got a job washing dishes on the north side. By the early 90s he'd discovered the city's booming performance poetry scene, becoming a fixture at open mikes at Estelle's and the Guild Complex and an original member, with the late Oscar Brown III and Keith M. Kelley, of the Funky Wordsmyths.

His return to CSU--where he had studied closely with the center's founder, Haki Madhubuti, and earned a degree in African-American studies in 1997--is part of a master plan. "I'd been a part of the institutions that Professor Madhubuti has built," he says, "specifically the Brooks Center and Third World Press, so I knew it was his goal for me to get my credentials and then come on back. But for me to return to Chicago there'd have to be a gig for me to fall in to." When he was offered an assistant professorship in creative writing, he jumped at it, and then, unexpectedly, another position opened up. "I knew that the Brooks Center was a part of my future," he says, "but I didn't know--nobody knew--that I'd become assistant director almost as soon as I came back." Lansana worked under Madhubuti for a year, and last July was promoted to director. Currently he's working on acquiring Brooks's papers from her estate and teaching in the school's own nascent MFA program, the only one in the country to focus on the literature of the African diaspora.

Tubman, he says, provides a model that others should follow. "She was a living, breathing woman who did all these amazing things....I believe what we have to do, like Harriet did, is to have strong beliefs, rooted in goodness and love and respect, and then unapologetically move through the world with those attributes."

Lansana's appearing several times over the next few weeks: On Saturday, May 8, he, his wife, Emily Hooper Lansana, and Zahra Baker (among others) will perform in Tight Belly of Moon, a theatrical interpretation of poems from They Shall Run presented as part of AfroFolk Live, a free series sponsored by the Old Town School of Folk Music. It starts at 7 at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Drive; call 773-728-6000. On Tuesday, May 11, he reads at Borders Books & Music, 1539 E. 53rd, at 7:30. It's free; call 773-752-8663. And on Monday, May 17, he'll share the stage with Keith Kelley for the first time in ten years for a performance and discussion at ETA Creative Arts Foundation, ETA Square, 7558 S. South Chicago. It starts at 7 and tickets

are $10; call 773-752-3995.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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