NYU Black Renaissance Noire Volume 18 Issue 3 - Fall 2018 - Page 58

essay Ascension: By E. Ethelbert Miller The Black World of Léon Damas and Stephen Henderson Léon Gontran Damas O my friend hold me strong hold me tight hold me well. — Léon Damas Now you have to work together. You have to follow, to take this idea of Ethelbert Miller, who created Ascension. You have to go up and you have to make something together. You have to say as we say, we are just a segment of the black race, we are not first. And what we have to do is learn modern languages. When Léon Damas made this comment, I was 27 years old. I was a young poet and director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. I had met Damas maybe three or four years earlier. Unfortunately, I had no knowledge of his work and global influence. I had majored in African American Studies and took a number of Black literature courses but was not introduced to the poetry of Léon Damas. Why? What I admired about Léon Damas was how he always reached out to young people. That’s what he saw me doing. In 1974 I started the Ascension Poetry Reading Series with the support of Stephen Henderson. Its primary purpose was to provide an outlet for emerging Black poets, while also highlighting the work of established Black voices. I used personal funds to bring writers to Washington, D.C. I coordinated readings throughout the city; two key locations were the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library. I took the name Ascension from the 1966 jazz album by John Coltrane. In public and written remarks about the series, I made reference to how Ascension represented the type of work that was being written after the Black Arts Movement. If the 1960s were a second Renaissance or rebirth of Black culture, then the next stage or level might just be one of Ascension. I view African American poetry as being spiritual and helping to uplift the Black community. Maybe this idea is what Damas was attracted to. In 1974 I presented only Black poets on my series but soon move towards inviting writers from other communities. I included such authors as Kimiko Hahn, Gregory Orfalea, Jessica Hagedorn and Pedro Pietri. Getting to know Léon Damas encouraged me to be international in my scope and thinking. My appreciation of Damas began in 1973. That was the year Howard University created the Institute for the Arts and Humanities (iah). The purpose of the institute was to “facilitate the efforts and commitments of Howard University to preserve, study, enhance, develop, disseminate and celebrate the artistic and creative aspects of the Afro-American heritage.” iah was designed to complement the established academic units already existing at Howard. The institute provided a forum for the discussion, debate and exchange of ideas or views about Black creative expression. Stephen Henderson served as the director of the Institute. I was the Junior Research Associate. The poet Sterling Brown came out of retirement to be the Senior Research Associate. Léon Damas was on the Advisory Board, as well as literary scholar Arthur P. Davis, author Paula Giddings, the painter Lois Jones Pierre-Noel, and freedom singer Bernice Reagon. r It begins with how we teach courses on the Harlem Renaissance or New Negro Movement. Too often this period is viewed primarily through the work and contributions of such individuals as Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston. The focus is on Harlem and the cultural movement is defined by geography and coming to an end as the 1930s unfolds, and the Great Depression begins. What we fail to acknowledge is that ideas and art are not held back or restricted by water. The poems of Cullen, Hughes and others crossed the Atlantic Ocean and influenced young students from Africa and the West Indies residing in Paris. I was unaware of this when I was a student at Howard. When I eventually read work by Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor, I had to read translations. I no longer knew my high school French. It was language that presented an obstacle and barrier. Even today we continue to separate Black literature by foreign languages. We are failing in our pursuit of training a new generation capable of embracing the fluidity of languages. On November 2, 1977, a very ill Léon Damas made his way to the Watha T. Daniel Library (not far from Howard University) to deliver his last public speech. The Institute for the Preservation and Study of African American writing, a local literary organization founded by Jonetta Rose Barras, Rose Susan Dorsey, and Sheila Crider had curated an exhibition honoring the Négritude poets. In his last remarks Damas explained how the Négritude Movement started and how it also manifested itself in Cuba, Haiti, Brazil and Uruguay. He mentioned how a person of blackness must overcome alienation, and he stressed the importance of defending one’s racial qualities. Damas also commented on the significance of the naacp and how the organization introduced him to such people as W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson, while he was in Paris. In 1977 Damas didn’t just focus on the past; near the end of his speech he made reference to my work. On that day he said: