September 20, 2017

New Writers Museum Hosts CCF Benefit | ALA Annual 2017

Nikki Giovanni at the American Writers Museum
Photo credit: American Library Association

The American Library Association (ALA) Annual conference, held in Chicago June 22–27, got off to a literary start with a sold-out Friday night reception at the American Writers Museum (AWM) featuring poet, author, and activist Nikki Giovanni, to benefit ALA’s Cultural Communities Fund, which supports humanities, civic, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programming in libraries of all types. Presented by ALA’s Public Programming Office, the evening featured a spirited reading by Giovanni (with a guest reading by one of her students, Jordan Holmes), a silent auction, plus plenty of opportunity to explore AWM’s varied interactive exhibits.

As a venue for librarians gathering from across the country, AMW was a logical choice. Aside from its location in ALA’s hometown, its stated mission—“to engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives”—resonated with the benefit’s attendees. While waiting for Giovanni’s reading to begin, the 175 guests enjoyed the content on offer, from the museum’s Writers Hall, with its American Voices literature timeline and Surprise Bookshelf highlighting different forms of writing, to the Children’s Literature Gallery, to the Chicago Gallery, which features a multimedia display of native “Visionaries and Troublemakers.” A meditative, plant-filled gallery display, “Palm: All Awake in the Darkness,” based on the poetry of W.S. Merwin, offers a quiet place to sit and reflect. And a display highlighting the work of Jack Kerouac features the original typewritten scroll of his novel On the Road.

While the museum, located on Michigan Avenue in central Chicago, has only been open since May 16, it was seven years in the planning. AWM founder Malcolm O’Hagan initially came up with the concept after he visited the Dublin Writers Museum and went in search of the American version—and found none. “It does seem absurd that America has so many museums devoted to fine art…but in a country composed of so many immigrants and children of immigrants, where stories have played such a part in remembering our pasts and unifying us, that it has taken us so long to honor our writers collectively,” he told Tin House magazine in a 2015 interview.

“Writing is a deep part of American culture, and we think that this museum really helps to celebrate that,” AWM president Carey Cranston told the assembled crowd on Friday. “We celebrate great writers of the past in our exhibits, we promote great writers of the present in our programming, and through those two things what we hope to accomplish is to inspire great writers of the future.”

GIOVANNI SHINES

American Writers Museum ceiling
Photo credit: Lisa Peet

The benefit’s crowd comprised an upbeat mix of Chicago natives and ALA conference attendees. Cranston, director of marketing and events Karie McGahan, and content leadership team member Donna Seaman each took a few minutes to address the museum’s mission. The evening, said Seaman—senior editor at ALA’s Booklist—was “a special night to celebrate writers and readers and books, to bring together two dynamic essential not-for-profit organizations, one that started in 1876 and another that started a month ago.”

She then introduced Giovanni, “a poet of unfailing passion, conviction, and galvanizing expression, a poet of conscience and innovation, who embodies all that makes American literature vital and essential.”

A prominent African American author whose work has addressed the civil rights movement, racism, violence, and contemporary culture, Giovanni has written and recorded poetry and essays for both adults and children. From her first collection, Black Feeling, Black Talk, in 1967, through her most recent, Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid (HarperCollins), Giovanni’s work has touched generations of readers, earning her multiple NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] Image Awards, the Langston Hughes Award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters, the Rosa Parks Women of Courage Award, and more than 20 honorary degrees from colleges and universities nationwide. She is currently a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech and serves on AMW’s advisory board. She is, as Seaman put it, “that rarest of creatures: a widely read, in-demand poet.”

American Writers Museum Chicago Gallery
Photo credit: Lisa Peet

Giovanni led off with memories of growing up in Knoxville, TN, and escaping her father’s violent household to live with her grandmother, “which probably saved me, or at least allowed me to recreate myself.” She also recalled Mrs. Long, a librarian who worked at the black branch of the Knoxville Carnegie Library (now the Knox County Public Library); at the time, Giovanni recalled, the libraries were segregated. It wasn’t until she was an adult that she realized, because she wanted to read books not held at her branch, Mrs. Long must have made the trip to the Lawson McGhee Library uptown—the white library—to get her the books she asked for. “I know that white librarians are nice people—I’m not saying that you aren’t. But we know in Knoxville at that time she had to put up with a lot to get the book to bring it to me. So I have an affection for librarians.”

Jordan Holmes and Nikki Giovanni
Photo credit: Lisa Peet

She read several poems from her upcoming collection, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter (Morrow), including “Morning Breakfast Routines” (including a discourse on why she dislikes eating breakfast), the moving “I Married My Mother,” and “The Museum (At Last),” about visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Holmes read a poem of his own, which she accompanied (“I’ve always wanted to just sing a little bit of a song, and I have you all trapped”) with a soft rendition of “Every Day I Have the Blues.” Interspersed throughout were a series of eclectic—but always apropos—reminiscences and references ranging from Trump and health care to Bill Cosby, hanging out with gangsters, and the Isley Brothers, who were childhood school friends (“when we had talent shows, everybody knew who was going to win”).

Before signing copies of A Good Cry for everyone in the room, Giovanni ended with a story of her first trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where she was surprised to find her picture on the wall. “Talk about what made me cry,” she recalled. “You don’t ever expect to see yourself in a museum. You don’t, because you think museums and stamps are for dead people. And I couldn’t help it, I saw that—I saw my picture—and I looked back to say, ‘Grandmother, see, I did my job.'”

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Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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