Robert Jones Jr. to feature at Marygrove’s Contemporary American Authors Lecture Series

This is part of a series, supported by The School at Marygrove, focusing on the work happening on the campus and in the community.  

When Marygrove transitioned from a private, Catholic institution into a P-20 learning community, it brought over several auxiliary events and programs that had evolved into educational and community mainstays. One of these was the Contemporary American Authors Lecture Series (CAALS), which began in 1989.

“There was an event at Marygrove and one of the board members spoke to a colleague and me about setting up a literary speaker series. He had in mind getting famous authors like Joyce Carol Oats and people like that,” says Frank Rashid, Professor Emeritus of English and Co-founder of the Institute for Detroit Studies.  

“When we met with our colleagues, we thought it would be great but let's try to focus on African American writers,” he says. “There are a lot of really important African American writers and we were not doing justice to them in our curriculum.”

The works of Black authors had been woven within Marygrove’s educational programming but literature by present-day Black authors was not being featured or taught. Rashid and others made a push for the series to be current and also for the series to reflect the demographics of the west side of Detroit.

“We were teaching African American literature but not contemporary,” Rashid says. “We thought we would do a service to our students and ourselves and we would create a series that was open to the community and create something to emphasize the importance of this writing for our different audiences.”

On April 21, 1989 CAALS kicked off its inaugural series with Gloria Naylor whose novel “The Women of Brewster Place” won the National Book Award in 1983. She was fresh off winning a Guggenheim Fellowship the year before and “The Women of Brewster Place was picked up by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions and made into a television miniseries. Her lecture and workshops were a resounding success.

“She bravely accepted our invitation to be the first person in this series,” Rashid says. “Six hundred people turned out for her, she did classroom sessions as well.”

Over the next three decades, CAALS has brought an array of novelists, poets, essayists, and essayists, including Pulitzer Prizes winners Colson Whitehead, Natasha Trethewey, Rita Dove, and Edward P. Jones.

“It’s usually somebody really achieving notoriety or somebody we feel is going to achieve notoriety,” says Rashid. “We had Elizabeth Alexander the year she was the inaugural poet for Barack Obama's inauguration.”

“What I like most about CAALS is the opportunity for our school community to engage in a distinguished author banquet and talk,” says Bayan Founas, a 10th-grade English teacher at The School of Marygrove.
“I believe it's necessary for school improvement that groups collaborate across campus. This type of community building is what helps the Marygrove community become a notable educational community in the city of Detroit.”

Founas also acknowledges that a lifelong impact can be made when a distinguished author of color visits and interacts with the students.

TSM Students and teacher Bayan Founas meet Brit Bennett. Photo: Sacred, Moon Reflections Photography.

“It allows youth in Detroit to see and hear what is possible for them, while experiencing and engaging in a space that opens doors of opportunity for them,” Founas says. 

CAALS also has regularly extended the series to community groups like InsideOut Literary Arts, The Tuxedo Project, various book clubs, and other organizations that embrace literary arts.    

“We’ve taken what we used to do when we had an English department and a faculty for our students and we’ve spread it out to the community,” Rashid says.

Prep workshops and handouts are also available to all CAALS attendees as a way to be prepared for the visiting author's content. Participants are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the work of the visiting author to create a stronger engagement during the event.

“We usually consult with Mary Helen Washington who is our writer consultant,” Rashid says. “There was always a literary context, we didn’t just have the author come and start talking.  We provided class sessions, and we did a lot of preparatory work. We provided bibliographies of their work and then we had Mary Helen come to contextualize what the author was going to talk about. And then the writer would give a reading or a lecture or a reading and remarks.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2019 CAALS event that featured novelist Roxane Gay was held online. Workshops were done via Zoom and Gay’s live-streamed lecture reached over 1000 people. Since then, organizers have decided to implement Zoom and live streaming as permanent vehicles for CAALS.  

 “Zoom allows us to do things in new and interesting ways,” Rashid says.

Robert Jones, Jr. Photo: Alberto Vargas, RainRiver.

On April 28 Marygrove will welcome its 34th guest author, Robert Jones, Jr. His book “The Prophets” (published by G.P. Putnam's Sons) is a New York Times bestseller. It was awarded the 2022 NAIBA Book of the Year Award for fiction and also won the 2022 Publishing Triangle Edmund White Award for debut fiction.

“It's about gay life under slavery,” Rashid says. “And he’s a beautiful stylist, he's a great writer. It's a provocative novel.”

“He’s going to do a lecture, he’ll probably read something from his work, but it will be a lecture. He will do a Q&A afterward.”

As CAALS has evolved into one of the longest-running and most significant literary series in the city, preserving it has also been a significant effort.  

“We’re completing the work on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete an archive of the series,” says Rashid. “It will be a video archive, photos, print material, and everything we have associated with the series. The Detroit Historical Society is doing the heavy lifting as far as getting things digitized.”

Rashid acknowledges that the longevity of the series has been helped immensely by the financial support Dr. Lillian Bauder, president emerita of the Cranbrook Educational Community, former Masco Corporation vice president, and former president and chair of the Masco Foundation. Bauder and her late husband Don Bauder have been supporters since 2003 and the event is commonly referred to as The Bauder Lecture. Overall Rashid sees a bright future for CAALS as the series' primary goal stays intact. 

“I like to make sure [students] are familiar with contemporary novelists and poets. People who are writing, we’re trying to emphasize the importance of contemporary African American literature. Even writers like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, or Zora Neal Hurston aren’t sufficiently taught but the idea that there are great writers working now and you can actually meet them and discuss their work with them - that's always been the hallmark of this series.”

CAALS Bauder Lecture with Robert Jones Jr. will be held on April 28, 8 p.m., at the Marygrove Conservancy and live-streamed on BPS Books. 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.