Penn State names first black woman laureate …wouldn’t you know it, she’s Jamaican!
Shara McCallum, a Jamaican liberal arts professor of English, has been chosen the first black woman to serve as Penn State laureate for the 2021-22 academic year, Penn State News announced Saturday.
Born to an Afro-Jamaican father and Venezuelan mother, McCallum said she is proud to be the first woman of colour to serve as Penn State laureate — an accomplishment that she believes can be especially inspiring to students.
“Often students’ conceptions of who a poet is, is of a man who died a few hundred years ago, and who was probably British,” she joked. “It’s refreshing and encouraging to them when they meet me, someone who is clearly alive and far more like them in some ways,” McCallum said.
“It helps them to see that this ‘thing’ — poetry — which they may have thought wasn’t accessible or an option for them, really is an open door.”
An annual faculty honour established in 2008, the Penn State laureate is a full-time faculty member in the arts or humanities who is assigned part-time for one academic year to bring greater visibility to the arts, humanities and the university, as well as to their own work.
In this role, McCallum who succeeds 2020-21 Penn State Laureate David Witwer, professor of American studies in Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Humanities, will be a highly visible representative of the university, appearing at events and speaking engagements throughout the commonwealth.
She has authored six books and has had poems and essays published in journals, anthologies, and textbooks throughout the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and Israel. Her latest poetry collection, No Ruined Stone (slated for release this summer), is a verse sequence based on an alternate account of history and Scottish poet Robert Burns’ near-migration to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation.
McCallum’s poems have been translated into Spanish, Italian, French, Romanian, Dutch, and Turkish and have been set to music by composers Marta Gentilucci and Gity Razaz. An anthology of poems selected from her six books, titled La historia es un cuarto/History is a Room, was translated into Spanish by Adalber Salas Hernndez and will be published later this year by Mantis Editores in Mexico.
Awards for McCallum’s work include the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for her previous book, Madwoman; a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress; a Poetry Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; the Oran Robert Perry Burke Award for Non-fiction; and the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for her first book, The Water Between Us.
McCallum said she is looking forward to sharing her poems and those of other Pennsylvania poets with residents of the commonwealth during her year as laureate. She is also eager to showcase the importance of poetry, not just as an art form, but in capturing and shaping history as well.
“Poetry is a living art that brings forth the human voice, both in written and oral fashion. This is something I hope to bring attention to,” she said.
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