Mellon grant to transform African poetry research, scholarship

· 5 min read

Mellon grant to transform African poetry research, scholarship

Lorna and Kwame Dawes
Craig Chandler | University Communication
Lorna and Kwame Dawes

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $750,000 grant to an international team led by Kwame Dawes, professor of English, and Lorna Dawes, associate professor of University Libraries, to expand an online portal for African poetry.

Initially established in 2017, the African Poetry Digital Portal documents the work of African poets and provides digital access to related creative and intellectual artifacts, materials and research. It is currently comprised of two major sections, “Contemporary African Poets” and “African Poets and Poetry in the News.”

The three-year Mellon Foundation grant provides support for the portal’s next phases: expanding research and scholarship relating to African poetry and joining with other institutions to create a digital collections hub that will give access to materials held by institutions worldwide.

“Poets have always understood themselves to be part of an ancient tradition that dates back into antiquity,” said Kwame Dawes, George Holmes Professor of English, Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and editor of the African Poetry Book series published by University of Nebraska Press. “Unfortunately, racism and other forms of power dynamics have limited our understanding of the threads of this tradition in parts of the world that were exploited. The fact is that rich and sophisticated poetic practices and traditions have always existed in African societies and continue to thrive in Africa.

“Our work, we hope, will bring this to light and in so doing, will give poets a chance to engage this tradition as part of their understanding of poetic form and practice,” he added. “It has been a tremendous honor to form partnerships with individuals from such venerable institutions from around the world.”

The portal project has attracted an impressive array of partners from Africa and beyond: the University of Cape Town in South Africa, the University of Lomé in Togo and the University of Ghana; University of Oxford and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom; and Northwestern University, the University of Michigan and the Library of Congress in the United States.

Chancellor Ronnie Green said he is excited about the scholarly work that will be made possible by the Mellon Foundation grant — and by what the project could mean for Husker students and students around the globe who will access the digital portal.

“Through poetry, humankind has a special power to express our deepest thoughts and strongest feelings,” he said. “I am thrilled that the Mellon Foundation shares our recognition of understanding the importance of African history through poetry.”

The portal is closely associated with the African Poetry Book Fund, an ambitious publishing enterprise that has produced numerous volumes of the best poetry composed by African poets. In partnership with the University of Nebraska Press and Akashic Books, the fund has published almost 100 African poets in six years. The fund also has established poetry prizes that are changing the poetry landscape.

Lorna Dawes said the Mellon Foundation grant will enable the support of six doctoral research graduate assistantships, three digital humanities research grants, and 78 research stipends to students and researchers. It also will fund a four-person technology team from Nebraska’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities to develop the new portal prototype and will support 11 undergraduate research stipends at collaborating institutions.

Kwame and Lorna Dawes worked closely with personnel from the University of Nebraska Foundation, with assistance from the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities and the Office of Research and Economic Development in preparing the final grant application.

“Thanks to Professor Dawes’ longstanding and visionary leadership, the English Department at UNL has established itself over the last half decade as one of the absolute best places in the U.S. to study African poetics,” said Marco Abel, English chair at Nebraska. “With Mellon’s support, this project is now poised for a massive institutional transformation.”

Lorna Dawes will oversee the work of the collections team in planning the collections hub, with archivist Mary Ellen Ducey, metadata librarian Margaret Mering and copyright specialist Paul Royster serving as advisers.

Mark Button, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Nebraska, and Claire Stewart, dean of libraries, said the Mellon Foundation’s generous support will lead to more scholarship and information about African literature.

“We have a remarkable opportunity to overcome distance, unifying in one place information about African poets and poetry, and linking together the collections that house their work in Africa and the diaspora,” Stewart said.

Button said the portal advances core priorities of the College of Arts and Sciences by providing equitable public access to creative works and research on African poetry, contributing to undergraduate research experiences and advanced graduate student training, and putting the university’s strong commitment to anti-racism into practice.

He predicted the portal will become “a signature intellectual and creative project within the College of Arts and Sciences for many years to come.”

Team members from partner institutions are:

  • University of Cape Town in South Africa — Nikki Crowster, director of information systems and resources; Michal Singer, principal archivist, primary collections, special collections; Mandy Noble, principal librarian, special collections, Jagger Library.
  • University of Lomé in Togo — Hongma Enyonam (Célestine) Mérat, assistant director, UL Library and Archives; Patron KoKou Henkou, director, UL Library.
  • University of Ghana — Samuel Owusu-Ansah, head of digitization and institutional repository, Balme Library.
  • University of Oxford — Lucy McCann, senior archivist, Bodleian Libraries.
  • University of Cambridge — Jenni Skinner, library manager, African Studies Library, Center of African Studies; Elleke Boehmer, professor of world literature; director, Oxford Center for Life Writing, Department of English.
  • Northwestern University — Esmeralda M. Kale, George and Mary LeCron Foster Curator, Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies.
  • University of Michigan, Loyd Gitari Mbabu, librarian, African Studies; collection coordinator, International Studies.
  • Library of Congress, Lanisa S. Kitchiner, chief, African and Middle Eastern Division.

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