By Michael P. Kuczynski, Professor and Chair, Department of English
When I was an undergraduate, one of my teachers assigned in an American literature class James Baldwin’s collection of autobiographical essays, Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin and I had little in common: he was black, I was white; he grew up in a poor, Pentecostal church in Harlem; I grew up in a working-class, Roman Catholic parish in Philadelphia. Nevertheless, as I read Baldwin’s essays, I was drawn in by the honesty of his prose, the brutal and beautiful ways in which he flew past, by writing, the nets of our country’s entrenched racism and paid tribute to the ideal of freedom that is America’s only hope for deliverance from these nets of our own contriving.
Literature is a powerful antidote to systemic racism. This was the theme of a panel, “Bridge to Understanding: A Discussion on Systemic Racism in America,” co-sponsored by Tulane University and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an international award, on April 4. The event attracted a diverse audience of students, faculty, and community members. Tulane’s panel was comprised of authors who had previously won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, as well as other accolades, and who now travel as part of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Authors’ Series: Gilbert King, author of The Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2012; Wilbert Rideau, former inmate at Angola prison, whose memoir, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Redemption, published in 2011, has provoked reform of Louisiana’s penal system; and Margaret Wrinkle, whose debut novel of 2013, Wash, tells the story of a slave’s triumph over oppression in language that the African American poet, Major Jackson, describes as “luxuriant.” Moderating was Tulane Visiting Professor of Creative Writing, Bernice McFadden, whose new novel, The Book of Harlan, was awarded the prestigious NAACP Image Award for Fiction for 2017.
The Dayton Literary Peace Prize is the only annual American award recognizing the power of writing to promote peace. It grew out of the 1995 accords, signed in Dayton, Ohio, which brought about an end to the Bosnian war. Past winners include Studs Terkel, Elie Wiesel, Gloria Steinem, and Marilynne Robinson. John and Stacey MacDonald, Tulane parents, are involved with the prize and Stacey serves as Founder and Chair of its Authors Series. Their vision of outreach paved a pathway of exchange and enlightenment, on April 4, between Dayton and New Orleans.