As a poet, Leonard A. Slade Jr. borrows freely from the archives of African-American history, shaping an elegy from the life of slain rap star Tupac Shakur, or an angry lament against African slaves being whipped and raped by white masters.
As a professor of Africana Studies at the University at Albany, Slade invites his students to find fresh meanings and new interpretations within the pages of Richards Wright's "Native Son," Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye."
In the confluence among his own meter, black history and the canon of contemporary black literature, Slade fashions images that breathe life into a month that has come to symbolize an ongoing discussion of culture and race.
"Black History Month is a time when we should celebrate the achievements past and present of African-Americans." Slade says. "It would be nice if we would continue to remember those achievements the other 11 months in the year, but designating one month is a least an important start in heightening consciousness."
Slade's own consciousness of black history received the jolt of a defining moment in 1961, while Slade was a sophomore at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, and he went to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preach at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Elizabeth City.
"It was inspiring," Slade recalled. "I've never heard another speaker like him. It made an indelible impression."
The civil-rights leader's sister-in-law, Edythe Scott Bagley, was a faculty member at Elizabeth City State University and taught Slade honors English. "I was planning on becoming an elementary school teacher at that time, and Edythe (Coretta Scott King's sister" saw potential in my writing and steered me into English literature," said Slade, who has published seven collections of poetry. "She was an important mentor."
Slade and his wife, Roberta, live in Albany with their Samoyed, a large white dog named Robert Lewis in honor of his wife's late father. She teaches music at Siena college and is music director and organist at St. Helen's Church in Schenectady. Their daughter, Minitria, 20, is a cellist and music major at the University of Michigan.
Slade, 54, is the oldest of nine children of Elizabeth and Leonard Slade Sr. His parents continue to live on the family farm in Conway, N.C., where they once grew peanuts, cotton and corn.
Slade remembered plowing behind their mule, Molly, as a boy, learning early the work ethic that allowed this parents to put all nine kids through college. In "The Black Madonna," a loving poetic tribute to his mother, Slade described her "picking cotton on/a cold day blisters/decorated her black fingers/in the fields."
Slade, his father and brothers raised cash to purchase their 75-acre farm by shaking peanuts from their earthen clumps. "We'd shake peanuts all day and were paid $1 a stack (roughly three bushels). On a good day, all of us could put up 100 stacks, which was $100. That was a lot of money back then."
Picking cotton is a less pleasant memory. "I couldn't pick with gloves because they got in my way, so I'd end up with cuts and bleeding fingers from the prickers on the bolls," he said.
Slade transforms that experience in his poem "For My Forefathers": "For my forefathers/Whose fingers pierced cotton bolls/Beneath the sun roasting human flesh/And darkness told master/To rape black women/for labor and profit."
Although Slade described a childhood in his racially mixed North Carolina town for the most part devoid of discrimination and racism, he uses his poetry to explore the pain of African-American history.
"We can't dismiss the reality of slavery and the Southern past if we are to understand who we are today," Slade said. "As a poet, I use historical images to dramatize that reality."
One area of his past that Slade has not explored is his own presumed mixed racial identity. His great-great-grandfather on his mother's side, James Langform, who settled in the early 1800s in Northampton County of North Carolina near the present-day family farm, came from England and rose in politics to win election as state legislator.
"From pictures I've seen, my grandmother looked like a white woman, and I always had questions about that," said Slade, himself lightskinned. "She'd never talk about it, but I stongly suspect there is white blood in our family's past."
Slade always considered himself an African-American and suffered occasional incidents of racism. One was the flip-side of the Martin Luther King Jr. experience, also in 1961 while a sophomore at Elizabeth City State University, a black college. Slade and his roommate attended a service in town at an all-white Baptist church whose sign atop the fron entrance annnounced: "A Church For All People."
Said Slade, "If looks could kill, we'd be dead." The white minister bored through the two black college students with an angry, silent stare that lasted for several moments before he stepped away from the pulpit without preaching. Slade and his roomate left early and never returned.
His poetry is more about rhythm that historical retribution. "I'm not out trying to correct racial injustices of the past in my poetry," he said. "I believe in Poe's notion that the rhythmic purpose of poetry is to elevate the soul. I hope to elevate a few souls."
From behind wire-rimmed glasses and wide, round eyes, Slade speaks in a near-whisper, his honeyed drawl pausing as he carefully chosses words. In person and in his writing, his anger over racial inequities is tempered with introspection.
Curiously, as an undergraduate English major at the black college in North Carolina, Slade first fell in love with some of the so-called dead white males of the Eurocentric literary canon: Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats. It wasn't until Slade was working on his doctorate degree in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that he began to focus on the work of Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Wright, Ellison and other Contemporary black writers.
Slade said he ultimately returns to a deep religious faith in answering the big questions in the culture of ideas that arise from his poetry and literary criticism.
"The theme of love is probably the most important theme in my work," Slade said. "It is a theme about a reliance on God and in faith for transcendence. Divine providence helps sustain us and allows us to endure. God's love and human love offer solutions to many problems in our society and in our lives. I truly believe love triumphs over all."
Even amid the cautionary tale of Tupac Shakur's brief, violent life in the gansta rap fast lane, Slade ends his poem, "Shakur," on a note of loving redemption: "Death has wrapped/him now/in the cradle/of mercy/carrying him home."
All events are subject to change without notice.
For more information contact OMSR at 518-442-5490.
Dr. Yosef-Jochannan ("Dr. Ben")
Topic: "Contributions of Africans to Civilization" PAC Main Theater at 7:30. Sponsored by ASUBA. $2 donation with student ID. $5 without.
Young Lords and Black Panther.
Speakers: Cleo Silvers, Black Panther and Panama Alba, Young Lords. Sponsored by ASUBA and AYA.
Afro-Caribbean Musical Group.
UAlbany's Campus Center Assembly Hall. Sponsored by CHARGE. Time TBA.
26th Annual Black and Puerto Rican Caucus Weekend.
"Into the next Millenium: Empowering Our People, Strengthening our Communities." For more schedule or more information contact Angela Jenkins at 518-427-8363.
"The Real Malcolm X".
Discussion following the film. Dutch Quad. Sponsored by CHARGE.
Early Black Cinema
The Scar of Shame
Within Our Gates
ASUBA Recreation Day.
Games, recreation and men's and women's sports competition. Old Gym.
"Sizwe Bansi is Dead."
A play by Athol Fugard. Whether or not you are concerned or even interested in what happens in South Africa, you must see this production simply because of its acting. "If there were any justice in this world, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead would be drawing bigger audiences than Bruce Willis' latest shoot'em-up."--Theater Review. UAlbany's PAC Recital Hall 4 pm performance. Reception to follow. Sponsored by the GSO, ASUBA, Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and New Day Repertory Company. For more information call 442-4178.
NAACP Founder's Day Commemoration.
Keynote Address: H. Carl McCall, NYS Comptroller. Union Baptist Church, 1 Morton Avenue, Albany. 3 pm.
"Portraits of W.E.B. DuBois and W.B. Yeats."
Lecturer: Professor W. Maurice Shipley of Ohio State University. CC Ballroom at 7:30 pm.
"Get On The Bus"
A movie about the Million Man March by Spike Lee. UAlbany's Page Hall, 135 Western Avenue. 3:30 pm. Sponsored by the NYS Writer's Institute.
Kwadwo Agymah Kamau.
A native of Barbados reads from his critically acclaimed first novel "Flickering Shadows." UAlbany Campus Center Assembly Hall at 8 pm. Informal afternoon seminar will be held at 4 pm in Humanities 354 at UAlbany.
18th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Luncheon.
Speaker: Barbara Reynolds, award-winning journalist, national syndicated columnist, television news commentator, author, professor and ordained minister. Campus Center Ballroom at 12 noon. Free. Sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.
Black Inventors Exhibit.
CC Ballroom from 9-5. Over 75 exhibits in honor of Black inventors. ASUBA.