Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Haiku poet to share interpretation of slave ship passage
Posted by Clayton Hardiman | The Muskegon Chronicle June 22, 2008 00:22AM
Categories: Breaking News

Mursalata Muhammad
Poets have striven to tell the story of the Middle Passage before.

And why not? The Middle Passage -- the forced transport across the Atlantic of kidnapped African men, women and children, packed like sardines in the holds of slave ships -- is a tale of such heartbreak, suffering and drama that it practically screams for artistic interpretation.

But, Mursalata Muhammad may be the first to recall the experience in just this way.

For one thing, she chose to write her verse in haiku, the spare, disciplined Japanese form of poetry that packs a world of meaning into every word and syllable. Muhammad also invited visual artists and musicians to create their own interpretations to accompany her work.

Artists from around the country responded to the invitation.
The poetry and accompanying art are part of a traveling exhibit called "Haiku Middle Passage." On display at the Muskegon County Museum of African American History through the end of August, the exhibit commemorates two centuries since the end of legalized transatlantic slave trading.

Muhammad, who is an associate professor of English at Grand Rapids Community College, will give a presentation during a reception at the African American history museum June 29. The reception is free of charge and open to the public.

In a telephone interview, Muhammad described her vision of the Middle Passage. In many ways, it is distinct, perhaps even unique.

For one thing, she said, other poets who have tackled the historical subject tended to expand their stories to include "what happened before and after," including the Africans' capture and their lives in New World captivity.

Muhammad's intent, on the other hand "was to reproduce the experience on water," she said.

Muhammad said she did not cling to the traditional five-seven-five syllabic arrangement of traditional haiku. Most of the 17 haiku are written in a seven-five-five form. Others were altered to represent other people's perspectives, such as those of European crew members aboard the slave ships.

The bulk of the haiku were written 10 to 12 years ago, Muhammad said, when she was a graduate student at Penn State University.

Writing the haiku was "a very cathartic experience," Muhammad said. "I tend to research a lot," she said. "I won't say it was fun, but it was engaging."

But perhaps the most revealing experience was seeing the work visual artists produced in response to her poetry, Muhammad said. "I thought it was just amazing," she said.

The Muskegon area is the third display for the traveling exhibit. It opened at Grand Rapids Community College in October and then had a stop at Holy Family University in Philadelphia. Eventually Muhammad would like to achieve 200 showings, after which the contents would be auctioned with proceeds donated to charity.

Viewers are encouraged to visit a Web blog on the exhibit located online at haikumiddlepassageexhibit.blogspot.com.

The Muskegon County Museum of African American History is located at 7 E. Center. Hours of operation are 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturdays.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dear Professor Muhammad:

I am writing to make you aware of the media interest the "Haiku Middle Passage" exhibit has attracted at Holy Family University.

Currently, information on the exhibit appears in a listing in the Northeast Times, a local weekly newspaper that has a circulation of roughly 112,000. In addition, a 45-second news report regarding the Haiku Middle Passage exhibit is scheduled to air Wednesday (Feb.6) throughout the day on KYW Newsradio 1060 AM (www.kyw1060.com). KYW Newsradio 1060 is the premier news radio station for the Philadelphia area with well over 2 million listeners. Community Affairs Reporter Karin Phillips visited the Holy Family art gallery today (Feb. 4) to view the exhibit and get information for the news report. She was also given information about the Haiku Middle Passage blog Web site and was invited to contact you.

...Thank you for involving Holy Family University in this endeavor and congratulations on the success of the traveling exhibit.
Highlighting slave
trade horrors

By Diane Prokop
Times Staff Writer

About 100 people packed into a narrow hallway at Holy Family University last week to see a national traveling art exhibit — Haiku Middle Passage.
The close quarters only magnified the power of the art — by 17 contributing artists — and the words — haiku poetry by professor Mursalata Muhammad, of Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan, along with two recorded compositions that played over and over like a solemn ode, commemorating 200 years since Great Britain abolished the transatlantic slave trade.

The trade route began in European ports, stopped in Africa to pick up slaves and sailed to the Americas to unload the human cargo, at which time the vessels sailed back to where the journey started.

The Middle Passage refers to the leg of the journey where, for 400 years, tens of millions of African-American men, women and children were packed like sardines aboard cargo ships in Africa for the trip to the Americas.
Holy Family associate professor Pamela Flynn, one of the 17 artists featured in the exhibit, calls her work Passage of Sorts.

“It was a passage of sorts — death is a passage of sorts,” she said.
Flynn used mixed media, such as photography, colored pencils and tissue sails, and stitched figures on her canvas to convey the horror of the slaves’ very lives being altered beyond their control.

they push them off one by one
only mourning the
profit margin loss

“It was an interesting process. Professor Mursalata Muhammad put out a call to artists and her e-mail was forwarded to me and I sent her images,” Flynn said.
While the artist/professor’s work usually has some social context, it took her quite a while to decide which way to go with the project.

“It had to sink in. I was thinking about it for quite a while,” Flynn said.
Muhammad was thinking about it for quite a while as well.
Although she missed her flight and was unable to attend last week’s reception, she did speak with the attendees via an Internet hookup.

She wrote the poems about 10 years ago as a grad student at Penn State — taking two years to write 13 haikus. Her form is a little different, however.
Traditionally, the Japanese poem or verse form consists of 17 syllables divided among three lines of five, seven and five syllables.

Muhammad modified the form of her haikus for Middle Passage. Other than the first haiku, when she wrote from the perspective of a slave, she used a seven-five-seven sequence of syllables. When writing from the perspective of someone else aboard the ship, she relied on the five-seven-five sequence — the ordered haiku verse.
She wanted to create the feel of what it was like being on the water:

I don’t get seasick but waves
jumble my mind thought
I speak foreign tongues
Free waters cannot give up
free people calmly
without making waves

It is illustrated by a painted slave ship tossed in rough water, the phrase “We shall overcome” written on the sea, while brown hands reach from the sky over a border resembling a colorful African kente cloth. The scene is intended to portray the helplessness — but also the dignity — of those held captive along the Middle Passage.

“The story is not complete until we get the other perspective. It becomes part of the collective story. Each holds something unique,” Muhammad said.
Professor Mary Caroll Johansen, who teaches history at Holy Family University, gave participants at the opening reception a sense of just how horrible the Middle Passage was for the millions of slaves.

She recounted the experience of a 6-1/2-year-old boy, Broteer, who in 1736 was put on a ship with about 260 others for the voyage from Africa to the enslavement of the Americas.

According to Johansen, the ships were packed tight like bookshelves. The slaves could not even sit up, let alone stand, and had to lie on their sides. Men were allotted a space about 6 feet by 16 inches wide, with smaller spaces for women and children.

Diseases spread quickly, with dysentery and smallpox the most deadly.
One ship’s captain was afraid he’d run out of drinking water, so he selected 133 slaves and ordered them thrown overboard in groups, Johansen said. The captain called them “parcels.” Before the last parcel was tossed, rain came and replenished the water supply. The captain still threw the last group overboard and subsequently asked insurers to pay for his loss of “cargo.” The request was refused.
The artistic exhibit moved Margaret S. Kelly, vice president of institutional advancement at Holy Family.

“I knew about it but I didn’t realize how bad it was,” she told Muhammad. “You are an anointed person to do this — the music, the visuals, your guided haiku. God wants this to be shared.”

Holy Family is the second stop for the exhibit. Muhammad’s dream is to have 200 exhibits of the Middle Passage, ending with an auction of the works so that they’ll be scattered as the slaves were so many years ago.

“We’re going to use the oral tradition and tell everybody to come out,” Muhammad said. ••

The Holy Family University art gallery is on the lower level of the John Perzel Education Technology Center, 9801 Frankford Ave. The exhibit continues through Feb. 27. To arrange group visits, call Pamela Flynn at 267-341-3418.
To learn more about the life of Broteer/Venture Smith, visit www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2h5.html

Reporter Diane Prokop can be reached at 215-354-3036 or dprokop@phillynews.com

Sunday, February 10, 2008

HMP show at Holy Family University until Feb. 27. Muskegon Michigan is HMP's next stop and perhaps New York next. We'll see. How about near you next? Leave a comment for a possible exhibit site because this is a collaborative event.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Okay so I've had a few bumps this week which prevented me from making it to HMP's opening reception at Holy Family University. There I sat, on my sofa exhausted and a bit bummed out -- then it hit me I wanted to be in Philly at the reception! So we went TECH!

Thanks to Mr. Kwant (GRCC's Media Technology Guru and keeper of after hours). He helped me reach all you in attendance at the reception via some sort of live video feed (sorry I didn't always look into the camera, I'm new at this). Thanks to Pamela Flynn at Holy Family for sticking with this project with all it's twists and turns.

Thanks to everyone for listening to me (10 second delay and all) and asking some great questions. Special thanks to the lovely lady with so many words of encouragement for the continuation of this project (I really needed them this week).

Please visit the Blog, leave a comment, send others to it too! As I said via video link - if the Internet is our new oral tradition then please help us spread the word about HMP.