Published May 13, 2021
For Patricia Matthew, a UB Distinguished Visiting Scholar (DVS) in the Department of English, the value of the ALANA experience has come full circle.
ALANA is a campus-wide commitment to diversity and inclusion that functions as a social and cultural base supporting the university’s African, Latinx, Asian and Native American students. ALANA’s programs and services offer students a learning center that serves as an enriching focal point for discussion, study and research, where students can learn about cross-cultural concerns, challenges and accomplishments.
Matthew, associate professor of English at Montclair State University, is the keynote speaker for today’s ALANA Celebration of Achievement, an annual event that has historically honored UB’s graduating ALANA students. The celebration will be streamed live on beginning at 2 p.m.
Her address, “Celebrating the Improvised Life,” closes a loop that started in the mid-1990s when Matthew was an ALANA graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“It seems so fitting to speak to this distinguished group of students who have achieved so much in this particularly difficult time,” says Matthew. “Being a DVS scholar has now reminded me of everything I love about the ALANA community that I’ve been involved with at UB and what I was a part of in graduate school.”
Matthew’s address is inspired by the poetry of Lucille Clifton (1936-2010), a poet, educator and two-time Pulitzer finalist who grew up in Buffalo.
In the middle of Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me” she asks:
what did I see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge
between starshine and clay
“The idea is that she shaped a life for herself,” Matthew explains. “Whatever path she had planned for herself was wrapped in the notion that she understood the value of knowing when to move away from that path so that something new could evolve.
“I want students to understand that part of their lives as people of color is to plan, but also not to give up on the possibility of improvising their lives.”
Clifton’s poem also possesses a narrative movement that takes her from a single voice to a collective experience, notes Matthew, who says “at that moment in the poem, she is a solitary figure, but she also carries with her the community that has made her possible”:
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Matthew plans to close her address with another Clifton poem titled “blessing the boats,” a work with a sweeping tide as its dominant metaphor.
“This poem reminds us of the often daunting rhythm of life, which has certainly been present during the past year, but the students have come through all this successfully during this enormously stressful time,” Matthew says. “Their lives will be improvised in large part because the pandemic and the current social moment requires that our lives be open to being improvised.”
She is familiar with these experiences, while being aware of ALANA’s beneficial role.
“I moved from Louisiana to New England for my graduate work and ALANA became my unofficial home,” she says. “On that predominantly white campus I knew there was nothing I was facing that my peers weren’t also facing.
“I could learn from the strategies they developed.”
ALANA provided an intellectually inspiring environment, and Matthew says it allowed her to write a dissertation around a diverse group of students and scholars who were studying and teaching disciplines ranging from sociology to linguistics to art history.
“That is something that ALANA does so well. It brings people of color together,” she says. “I remember leaving graduate school saying that I’ve had an interdisciplinary education because of ALANA.”
And what Matthew realized as a student is among the experiences she has brought to UB.
Her dialogue series, a program sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and hosted by the Center for Diversity Innovation and the Department of English, brought scholars of color to the university to deliver videoconferencing talks that were attended by audiences averaging about 100 visitors from 22 different countries who could listen to artists, historians, literary scholars and public intellectuals talking about race and Blackness in the transatlantic 19th century.
“This was ALANA in action,” says Matthew. “It’s fantastic that the University at Buffalo has invested in diversity and inclusion in such a meaningful way. They brought in nine scholars of color from around the country in different disciplines.
“It has been wonderful to be with them — even virtually.”
Matthew says UB’s efforts demonstrate a huge commitment and understanding of the value of the work that ALANA can accomplish.
“I’m honored,” she says. “I haven’t thought of myself as a member of ALANA since I’ve been a professor for 17 years, but it’s a very emotional experience and I’m happy to be able to speak to the next generation.”