Hermine Pinson’s narrative is one of becoming through the lens of a blues sensibility. When she talks about her favorite artists, she takes you on a journey throughout her life, starting with her childhood in the segregated Deep South to her almost three decades as a professor at William & Mary and many life-changing experiences in between. In effect, she explains the evolution of her poetics and its grounding in the African-American tradition.
“There are works of art that have spoken to me and that have, through exploration of their work, allowed me to discover things about myself and the world,” said Pinson, the Frances L. & Edwin L. Cummings Professor of English and Africana Studies at W&M.
“Blues sensibility is a way of apprehending or perceiving time – past, present and future. I’m thinking about Langston Hughes’ ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ when I say that the blues sensibility is a way of opening up to beauty and ugliness too. To cite scholar Judylyn Ryan, it also functions to sharpen my ‘interpretive agency’ in the way that structures of the African-American aesthetic tradition — call and response, improvisation, the moan, the holler — position me to claim or increase my own creative, interpretive and epistemological agency.”
Pinson will explore some of these pieces of work, and some of her own, in the fall 2021 Tack Faculty Lecture, “To Make a Poet Black: Navigating a Blues Sensibility,” on Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium. She will be the first Tack Faculty lecturer to include performance-based pieces.
The event is free and open to the public with a reception to follow, and attendees are asked to RSVP.
As an admirer of the works of many artists, from poet Emily Dickinson to singer/songwriter Nina Simone and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, Pinson developed her own blues sensibility, which helped her navigate, among other things, widespread racism growing up and a health scare in 2004, when she was diagnosed with a malignant tumor and survived.
She has also become a highly regarded writer and artist in her own right, producing poetry, prose and music, some in collaboration with award-winning artists such as poet and playwright Ntozake Shange and poet Yusef Komunyakaa.
In her nomination letter, Director of Africana Studies Omiyemi Artisia Green said, “Hermine’s poetry readings are riveting, and her blues renderings are soul stirring. I am confident that her lecture demonstration will be equally dynamic.”
Pinson plans to sing and recite some of her own work during the lecture, including numbers from her CD “Changing the Change,” a collaboration she did with Komunyakaa and award-winning poet/memoirist Estella Conwill Majozo. She also plans to do a reading of Sterling A. Brown’s poem “Ma Rainey,” and she will use the works of artists such as painter William H. Johnson in her discussion of the ways in which blues sensibility informs her poetics.
“It wasn’t called a blues sensibility when I was growing up,” Pinson said. “I grew up in a segregated environment, and I experienced and was exposed to the spirituals of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the classical music my mother played at home; folk songs; hymns at church; the art of Aaron Douglas, Henry O. Tanner, Elizabeth Catlett; and my grandmother’s quilts and crocheted creations; my grandfather’s truck garden. The blues sensibility crosses genres and disciplines. Its existential value lies in its possibilities as a way of knowing and being in the world.”
Pinson said she will intertwine stories from her own life into her lecture, including her health scare 17 years ago. She credited her family, friends and the William & Mary community for helping her get through it all.
“What helped me to survive and remake myself? It was calling on and remembering the very values that I grew up with. And that helped me to come back to myself,” Pinson said.
Pinson is excited to share some of her favorite works and some of her own creations with the audience during the hour-long presentation.
She has so much to present, her challenge will be in condensing it all into a short lecture.
“I’m excited and a little nervous, of course,” Pinson said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to talk about all these things, but I will select representative pieces in the form of the quilt whose overall design is held together by my own role as witness, hopefully in the tradition of my heroes and mentors: Shange, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Komunyakaa, Simone. I could go on.”