To spend two days holding forth on a former teacher could pose a challenge to the best of scholars. Henry Louis Gates Jr., distinguished African American scholar/author and W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, had the opportunity to face that challenge as the fourth Richard Ellmann Lecturer in Modern Literature. Gates has had a 25-year relationship with the subject of his lectures--Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka. Through the series, Gates expounded on "The Art and Politics of Wole Soyinka." During the two-day event, Gates presented three extended studies of Soyinka's works including the writer's theory of tragedy and the influences of African myth and traditions on the Soyinka canon.
Gates presented anecdotes relating the often controversial life of the Nigerian playwright who is now in his third exile from his home country. Calling Soyinka "one of the few black artists who has dared to make the black experience the site of universal experience," Gates drew connections between Soyinka's Yoruban heritage and his artistry and to modern day American jazz and blues.
Throughout the two days students and faculty were given the opportunity to meet and talk with Gates and Soyinka. At the reception following the second lecture, Ellmann Lectures coordinator and professor of English Ronald Schuchard introduced Richard Murdoch of Shadowy Waters Press, who presented a hand-press limited edition printing of Soyinka's poem, "Civilian and Soldier." Soyinka and Gates were presented two-of-a-kind editions printed on hand-made paper while 200 limited editions were presented to audience members. Soyinka performed an impromptu reading of the poem after the presentation.
Signifying the importance of the series to the study of modern literature, Harvard University Press will publish the lectures series "The Art and Politics of Wole Soyinka" this year as it did with Helen Vendler's Ellmann presentations in 1994.