In The Spotlight
“The late Toni Morrison, literary powerhouse and a winner of both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize, pronounced in her 1993 Nobel lecture that while death may be the meaning of life, the unique human ability to “do language” may be the measure of our lives. A peerless master of the written word whose work has come to define late 20th-century fiction, Morrison harnessed the potential of language and refined it into raw power—power that propelled her to publish novels that probe the universality of the human condition through the specific lens of African American history, culture, and experiences.
It is no surprise to first-year doctoral student Kymberli Corprue that Morrison honed her literary gifts as an undergraduate student – and later as an instructor – in Howard’s own Department of English, where Corprue will pursue graduate study this fall. Morrison was one of many esteemed writers who call Howard’s English department home, a fact that lingers in Corprue’s mind as she prepares to begin her first semester. “There’s no better place to study African American literature than an HBCU,” she says, “and no HBCU has had a bigger impact on African American literature than Howard.”
Corprue comes to Howard from California State, Los Angeles, where she earned a Master of Arts in English. Her research focuses on literary Afrofuturism, a genre that explores the intersection of science fiction and fantasy content with African diasporic cultures and themes. Although Corprue enjoyed reading science fiction stories as a child, she describes her decision to focus on Afrofuturism as an academic field of study as a happy accident. “When I started working on my master’s thesis, I became known as the ‘science fiction’ person in my department,” she says. “People came to me with questions about fantasy and sci-fi, so I had to learn as much as I could to answer them.” Conducting research for her thesis revealed to Corprue the potential in studying Afrofuturism and Black writers’ and artists’ influence on the science fiction and fantasy genres. “I kept seeing all these people in sci-fi doing things that Black people have done for so long,” she says, “but they call it other things, and Black people never get recognized for it. So sci-fi writers will talk about enslavement and oppression, but then they’ll erase Black people and Black history from the narrative.”
Corprue didn’t seek to correct this oversight with only a critical analysis of Afrofuturism and Black science-fiction; her thesis also included an original work of short fiction entitled “Organic Energy.” Set in a distant future, the work tells the story of a corrupt corporation that kidnaps young Black people and harnesses the melanin in their skin in an attempt to solve the country’s energy crisis. Explaining her inspiration for writing the story, Corprue notes that submitting the analytical component of her thesis along with a creative representation of the genre was especially appropriate at Cal State LA, the alma mater of Black science fiction pioneer Octavia Butler. She envisioned “Organic Energy” as part of a long tradition of Afrofuturistic fiction, including Butler’s, that delivers serious socio-political commentary to audiences through a popular medium. “I got the idea of Black people moving the culture along,” she says, “so I wanted to write something about Black popular culture being personified and appropriated.” Corprue would like to eventually expand the story into a novel or book series.
Corprue sees the recent surge of Black science fiction and fantasy as an opportunity for scholars and writers of Afrofuturism. Considering the popularity of blockbuster films like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and Jordan Peele’s Get Out and best-selling novels like Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone and Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles, the genre is perhaps more visible now than it has ever been. Corprue celebrates this visibility as a triumph for Black representation in science fiction and fantasy both on the screen and page and behind the scenes. She plans to take advantage of this phenomenon at Howard, studying under African American literature scholars including Dr. Gregory Hampton—author of the first book-length critical study of Butler’s body of work—and deepening her critical engagement with the genre.
Corprue anticipates benefitting not only from the expertise of professors like Dr. Hampton but also from the unique collegiate environment that only an HBCU offers. “I’ve never gone to a school that’s predominantly Black,” she says, “so mostly throughout my school career, there haven’t been a lot Black people in my English classes.” At Howard, Corprue notes, Blackness is centered and celebrated rather than included as an afterthought or, worse still, completely ignored. “If I take a course in Modernist fiction at Howard, I know I’ll see Ellison on the syllabus. I’ll see Baldwin. I won’t have to ask anyone to teach Black writers. That’s important.”
Along with the expertise that she’ll amass through her studies, Corprue is excited about taking advantage of Howard’s familial culture. “Everyone keeps telling me that when you go to Howard, you’re part of a family,” she says. Toni Morrison was here, and U.S. Senators were here. Even the Black Panther went here! And now I’m here…where I belong.”
- Kymberli Corprue comes to Howard from California State, Los Angeles where she earned a Master of Arts in English. Kymberli is a first-year English doctoral student.