Black post-blackness in a 21st century world

Combining myriad forms of expression, including visual art and music, is integral to the “Introduction to African-American Literature” courses taught by Margo Natalie Crawford, a professor of English in her first semester at Penn.

“I want the students to see African-American literature as being tied to cultural movements,” says Crawford, who came to Penn this fall after teaching eight years at Cornell University.

Jed Esty, the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English and chair of Penn’s Department of English in the School of Arts and Sciences, says they are “absolutely delighted” to welcome Crawford to the faculty.

“She arrives in the midst of a remarkable creative boom in her career as a scholar, with a far-reaching book just hitting the shelves this year, and three more major projects on deck,” he says.

That far-reaching book is “Black Post-Blackness: The Black Arts Movement and Twenty-First-Century Aesthetics,” which was published in May.

“The book is situated on the vibrating edge that connects literature and visual art,” she explains. “I’m delighted that art historians and literary critics are teaching it next semester.”

The book traces the arc of description from the Black Arts Movement to the Black Lives Matter moment, showing contemporary African-American poets, artists, and intellectuals using experimental and abstract techniques to represent the black historical experience, Esty says, “without reducing it down to a rigid or pat narrative of black life in America."  

Crawford argues that “black” and “post-black” meet in the experimental art of the 1960s and ’70s Black Arts Movement and the early years of the 21st century. The book examines many genres: outdoor murals, paintings, installation art, editorial cartoons, experimental forms of art, as well as books, plays, and poetry.

The 1960s and ’70s Black Arts Movement has been “flattened,” Crawford insists, and she sets out to “complicate” that narrative.

“The tradition of black experimentalism must include the Black Arts Movement; the Black Arts Movement is not the movement that must be repudiated as we move to experimental blackness,” she says.

Crawford grew up in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, attended Swarthmore College for her bachelor’s degree, and Yale University for her master’s and doctorate. She taught at Vassar College and Indiana University, Bloomington, before Cornell.

African-American literature and culture, and global black consciousness, have been the focus throughout her career.

“A principal part of my work at this point is thinking about how we begin to frame these very first years of 21st century African-American literature, this emergent literature,” she says. “I love studying something that is so dynamic.”

Crawford says she is “thrilled” to be a part of the English Department establishing “one of the strongest centers for the study of African-American and African-diasporic literature and culture” in the nation.

“Margo is also a peerless mentor and award-winning teacher who is already lighting up the classrooms in Fisher-Bennett Hall,” Esty says. “With her abundant experience and positive energy, she is proving to be a transformative hire. She deepens our offerings in African-American literary and visual arts, and expands our intellectual reach into the public arts and humanities.”

In the spring, she will teach a freshman seminar course on black public art, focusing on the outdoor murals in Philadelphia and the history of public art in social movements. Crawford has been exploring Philadelphia while preparing for the class, traveling to the murals to take photographs for PowerPoint slides.

Her students will be given assignments that allow them to visit outdoor murals and escape the confines of the classroom.

“I hope this black public art course will break the boundaries of the ivory tower,” she says.