Festival honors black poetry leader

Thursday, November 10, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:09 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

In Ahmos Zu-Bolton’s final book of poems, “Ain’t No Spring Chicken,” which was published some seven years before his death in March, he wrote, “I am as old as sin/quiet as it’s kept/As ancient as an exorcism from paradise.”

A teacher, activist and poet whose work appeared in more than 100 magazines and literary journals, Zu-Bolton was an icon of the Black Arts Movement, a brief period of black political and spiritual energy in the mid-1960s. Zu-Bolton’s life and work is being honored today at MU’s Black Studies Fall Conference, “Ahmos Zu-Bolton Poetry Festival and the 45th Anniversary Celebration of the Black Arts Movement.”

E. Ethelbert Miller, director of the African-American Resource Center at Howard University, where Zu-Bolton worked from 1974 to 1980, will offer a keynote address on “The Poetry of Ahmos Zu-Bolton.” The conference will include a poetry reading, lectures and reflections from colleagues and students.

Zu-Bolton arrived in Columbia in 2001 as a visiting writer-in-residence with MU’s Black Studies Program. According to a brief biographical sketch by the Black Studies Department, “his slight frame and smoke dreadlocks gave him the appearance of an ancient soul.”

Miller described Zu-Bolton as someone who “wanted to be older than he actually was.”

“He had a real respect for older people,” he said. “He saw those individuals as having a key to wisdom in the community.”

Miller described Zu-Bolton as a “generous writer.” A native of Poplarville, Miss., Zu-Bolton impressed Miller with his portrayals of Southern black life. As a publisher — he founded HooDoo, the magazine of the Black Arts Movement, and Mid-Missouri Youth Mirror, a youth news magazine — Zu-Bolton reached out to unknown black writers, such as Alice Walker, before they reached stardom.

“Ahmos probably published their first poems,” said Miller, adding that Zu-Bolton was such an important figure that his writing “needs to be researched, so individuals’ names won’t fall through the cracks of history.”

Zu-Bolton’s students referred to him as a “griot,” a storyteller and keeper of African oral traditions.

“The people go to the griot when they want to know about their past,” said Malachi Crawford, a former student of Zu-Bolton and an organizer of the conference. “He was seen in that light.”

Crawford is the former editor of Mid-Missouri Youth Mirror. Before Zu-Bolton died, he requested a grant from the City of Columbia to maintain the magazine and pay staff writers, although he took no pay himself, Crawford said. The grant was awarded after Zu-Bolton died and has helped the magazine stay afloat, Crawford said.

“He really influenced, arguably, the best poets that came out of MU,” Crawford said.

Though Zu-Bolton occasionally performed at the Cherry Street Artisan and Legacy Art Gallery, it was his informal discussions and openness that defined his character. He would host “rent parties” at his Columbia home, where MU faculty members played spades, ate New Orleans cuisine and donated money to help Zu-Bolton with his living expenses.

“It was the best food,” Crawford recalled.

Speakers at today’s conference include MU faculty, former students of Zu-Bolton and the poet’s wife, Ywenboui. Julius Thompson, director of the Black Studies Department, will read some of Zu-Bolton’s poems.

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