campus news

UB exhibit honors accomplishments of Black authors

Melanie March and BreAnna Rice pose with the exhibition poster.

MA student Melanie March (left) and PhD student BreAnna Rice were among the curators of “Shifting Tides: The Past, Present, and Future of Black Literary Archives.” Photo: Miriam Thaggert


Published May 19, 2023

“We must learn to engage with all kinds of consumable media, and we hope this exhibit can start aiding visitors on their journey of expanding their literacy skills. ”
Melanie March, graduate student
Department of English

The UB Poetry Collection is presenting a unique historical exhibit that will lead visitors from the past of Black art into its future, while also challenging traditional notions for what constitutes literature.

“Shifting Tides: The Past, Present, and Future of Black Literary Archives” is open through June 8 in 420 Capen Hall, North Campus.

Students in the graduate seminar “Black Writers and the Archive” have curated the exhibit through their independent research on Black literature and archival studies in the Poetry Collection. The exhibition’s goal, however, goes beyond appreciation and preservation. “Shifting Tides” contributes to new understandings of literacy and the development of a broader definition of literature.

“The exhibit shows the way Black artists theorize their own aesthetic practices and their position in the history of American art-making,” says Luke Folk, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English, who is also one of the student curators. “It’s an opportunity to provide a forum to honor the accomplishments of Black authors with members of the public so that our fascination could potentially be their fascination as well.”

Writers such as Tyrone Williams, Blackheart Collective, Naima N. Lowe, Krista Franklin, Douglas Kearney and M. NourbeSe Philip are among those featured in the exhibit.

“We hope that visitors experience the voices of these artists speaking to them,” says Melanie March, a graduate student in the Department of English and another of the exhibit’s curators.

The relationship between Black writers and researchers with the archive has been long fraught, according to Nicole Morris Johnson, assistant professor of English, College of Arts Sciences.

Panel discussion during the opening of the "Shifting Tides" exhibit.

Taking part in a panel discussion at the opening reception for the exhibit are (from left) PhD students and curators Aaron VanSteinberg, Eli Didier and Luke Folk;  Tyrone Williams, professor of English and David Gray Chair of Poetry and Letters; and Nicole Morris Johnson (standing), assistant professor and director of the MA program in the Department of English. Photo: Miriam Thaggert

“Participants in this seminar have engaged theoretical and literary approaches to this issue,” says Morris Johnson, an expert in 20th century American literature and African American literary, cultural and religious history. “We’ve worked closely with UB’s Poetry Collection and University Archives to interrogate biases embedded in the creation of the archive and Black writers’ negotiations with these realities.”

Yan Hoang and Valerie Mastroianni, students who are both in UB Teach, a combined BA/EdM program, stress that expanding literacy in ways that free it from the printed page are critical in the current digital environment. Today’s context requires fluency in a variety of multimodal mediums. It’s a novel multilingualism with an inherent wide-angle lens that frames forms previously outside of our field of vision.

“A lot of visitors will see elements of the exhibit that don’t fit the bill of ‘literature’ in the classic sense,” they say. “There are traditional books and magazines, but we also have extra-literary artifacts such as QR codes, art installations and printed blog posts. If something speaks to you in a way you understand, then that is literacy in its purest form.”

And promoting the importance of all-encompassing literacy is among the exhibit’s goals.

“We must learn to engage with all kinds of consumable media, and we hope this exhibit can start aiding visitors on their journey of expanding their literacy skills,” says March.