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In a warm lecture hall, University of Kentucky professor Adam Banks bounced and spoke with the cool cadence of a spoken-word poet, dropping gems on technology, funk and black freedom.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Banks returned to the city to argue that Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album, “Talking Book,” is a master key to black rhetoric, literacy, innovation and contemporary engagements with technology. As he stood on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, blocks from the John Hay High School he attended as a teen, Banks seemed keenly aware of geography and beginnings as he performed his presentation: “Talking Back to the Book: Critical Digital Literacies in African American Rhetorical Traditions.”

He called Wonder’s work “a funk sermon,” an infusion of new technologies, innovation and cultural pride. Funk music, he insisted, gives African Americans a framework for assessing our identities. “The boldness, the wildness, the stank of funk forces us to remember the full range of who we be, and often, forces the rest of the society to confront more of that range, that rage, that joy, that pain, that pleasure of who we be.”

Bridging the gap between the civil rights era and the black power era, “Talking Book” came out at a time when “black communities all over the country were refiguring their relationship with the United States,” Banks said.

Linking Wonder and other masters of funk to today’s rhetorical spaces, Banks described Facebook and Instagram as places where creativity and free dialogue can flourish, as it did among musicians in a studio. “That’s an example of a free space,” he observed. “It can’t be policed.”

Such places contrast with the “incessant testing, punitive mind-set and folk funding the de-funding of public education” that bedevil American schools today. And those free spaces, existing outside traditional academic environments, can be created and expanded almost anywhere. For years, Banks has hosted “community cyphers” in bars and church basements, giving lessons on blogging and social media so participants could develop a voice on their own terms. Whether using Twitter to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement or simply retweeting humorous memes, these acts link to black oral traditions such as hush harbors and “signifying.”

“There’s a relationship between innovation and tradition,” Banks insisted. “Just because there’s a lot of wild stuff happening right now, doesn’t mean it just grew. It comes from somewhere….that’s a wonderful assurance. Even if I don’t understand some things that are happening, that’s always a way in.”

Anthony Marra startled the literary world in 2013 with his stunner of a debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. His fresh, Chechnya-inspired book won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and will bring its author to Cleveland for the first time. He follows in the footsteps of Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers, who spoke last year about his own war novel, “The Yellow Birds” on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.

Marra, 30, will speak and read at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 10, in the intimate setting of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case. “Wars shatter families, relationships, even stories,” Marra has said. “But Constellation is less a story about war than a story about ordinary people rebuilding their lives during and in the aftermath of war. It’s a story not about rebels and soldiers, but about surgeons, nurses, and teachers, each of whom tries to salvage and recreate what has been lost.”
The writer first found his way to the Caucuses as an undergraduate abroad. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Oakland, Calif., and teaches at Stanford University. His novel, set over five days between the two modern Chechnya wars, has many sources in nonfiction and fiction. One is to the work of assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya; another is the Anisfield-Wolf winner Edward P. Jones.

In crackling scenes flecked with notes of mordant humor, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena contains six central characters, and begins with an 8-year-old girl hiding in the forest as the Russian federals burn her home and “disappear” her father. A neighbor determines to hide the child in a mostly-destroyed hospital where one doctor and one nurse remains. “When I traveled to Chechnya,” Marra remarked, “I was repeatedly surprised by the jokes I heard people cracking. It was a brand of dark, fatalistic humor imprinted with the absurdity that has become normalized there over the past two decades.”

The novel won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, and was long-listed for the National Book Award. Marra earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and studied with novelist Adam Johnson at Stanford. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Narrative magazine, the 2011 Pushcart Prize anthology, and the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012.

The Baker-Nord event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Get more information and RSVP for the event HERE.