Yale University announced on Wednesday that the Modern Language Association of America has awarded its 14th annual William Sanders Scarborough Prize to Yale faculty member Anthony Reed assistant professor of English and African American studies at Yale University and the author of ‘Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing,’ published in January of 2015, by Johns Hopkins University Press. Recognizing an outstanding scholarly study of African American literature or culture, this prize is to be presented during the MLA’s annual convention in Austin, Texas, taking place on Jan. 9.
The selection committee included Professor David Ikard, Director of Africana Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Miami, Professor Gene Andrew Jarrett, Dean of the Faculty in the Humanities at Boston University; and Professor Magdalena J. Zaborowska, Department of American Culture and Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, who served as its chair. In the citation for the winning book, the committee noted that the book had certain defining characteristics: “Intellectually sharp, deeply insightful, and eloquently rendered” Further, they write:
“Anthony Reed’s ‘Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing’ challenges us to radically unlearn what we know about the power, ambitions, and goals of black experimental writing from the 1960s to the present day. Rethinking black experimental writing as myopically reactionary and political, Reed shows the extent to which the work is visionary and expansive beyond the limits of challenging established Eurocentric poetic forms and aesthetic values. Indeed, he demonstrates how that kind of writing has radically transformed such forms and values and, by extension, revolutionized our very notions of race, freedom, liberty, beauty, love, and democratic possibilities.”
As a scholar and teacher at Yale, Reed’s primary interests include the intersection of literature and politics, especially among writers in the African diaspora – through both voluntary and involuntary migration. His writings in both prose and poetry have appeared in Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters, the African American Review, and in Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society.
Professor Reed is working on a book project that will put a spotlight on recordings that feature collaborations between poets and musicians, exploring the Black Arts movement in the United States and abroad, with a focus on the experience of sound in literary and cultural practice.
In a guest post for Johns Hopkins University, at the time the winning book was published in January, Reed speaks of his reference in the book to the essay of W. E. B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art,” not only noting that the purpose of art is essentially a form of propaganda, but that the objective of what one refers to as ‘black art’ should be obliged, to “let this world be beautiful.” It’s beauty, whether in the visual arts, literature, music or dance can serve to remind viewers and listeners that the lives of those of color – whether or not they may have shared the historic and ongoing effects of enslavement – have an immense capacity for prevailing over adversity through the human spirit, as an expression of relentless optimism that is the potential of all human beings:
“In Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, the phrase “color line,” sometimes hyphenated, serves as a name for what blocks, distorts, and prevents the beauty of the world. In my reading, it makes the color line one separator between speech and noise, or between the intelligible and the unintelligible. It determines whether and how things appear, and is the line that I argue black experimental writing confronts, redraws, or ignores in its presentation of worlds that exist beyond, invoking Du Bois again, the “limitations of allowable thought.” …
Black experimental writing exists at the nexus of experience and open-ended endeavor without guarantees. It is a name, finally, for what I would now call a black radical imagination, imagining new beginnings and beginning again, imagining possibilities beyond those already predicted by the present. This isn’t the imagination that black people have, but ways of surviving and producing the beauty necessary to sustain and nourish black lives, of reaching toward a future on terms other than those of the present.”
The MLA was founded in 1883. There are presently nearly 26,000 members from 100 countries who engage in and support the study and the teaching of languages and literature, producing a variety of publications in the humanities, both or professionals and for the general public. Established in 2001, the William Sanders Scarborough Prize was named for the first African American member of the MLA.