Playing in the Pocket

Herman Beavers performs a balancing act of creative expression and educational innovation.

Friday, November 1, 2019

By Blake Cole

Illustrations by Noa Denmon

Photography by Shira Yudkoff

"A life is a series of stories,” reflects Herman Beavers, who wears enough hats to fill a rack. A professor of English and Africana Studies, Beavers’ scholarly interests and courses focus on 20th-century African American literature and culture, jazz and the blues, and poetry and poetics. A published poet, his love and study of music infuse his works. Beavers’ career is also defined by his commitment to community building, whether it be finding exciting new ways to connect students with local residents, or discussing literature with veterans. His journey from a young academic to an accomplished scholar and teacher is one of intellectual and artistic curiosity, matched only by an enduring generosity.

What happens in class has everything to do with what is happening in students’ lives. Part of your job as a teacher is to make sure your mentees are able to make their story what they imagine it to be.

Herman Beavers, Professor of English and Africana Studies

Beavers’ first loves were writing and music. As an undergraduate, he chose Oberlin College because of its conservatory of music. While there, he saw jazz legends like Betty Carter, Art Blakey, and Sonny Rollins perform. After graduating from Oberlin, he took a leap of faith and bypassed his “safe” plan to attend law school. He instead chose the master’s writing program at Brown University. “I remember asking my advisor, ‘How come we don’t read African American writers in anthologies?’” says Beavers. “He said, ‘To answer that question, you have to get a Ph.D.’ So, that’s what I did.”

While Beavers was completing work on a second master’s in Afro-American Studies and said Ph.D. in American Studies, both from Yale, he began his teaching career at Sarah Lawrence College, which employs an unconventional grading system that requires all students to complete independent study programs. “I had a faculty mentor who said I should only devote 10 or 15 minutes to each student,” says Beavers. “But for me, those biweekly meetings turned into hour-long conversations and I came to understand that what happens in class has everything to do with what is happening in students’ lives. Part of your job as a teacher is to make sure your mentees are able to make their story what they imagine it to be.” This mantra would come to encapsulate Beavers’ career as a teacher and mentor.

Teaching Is About Listening

Beavers came to Penn in 1989. He still remembers the impact of driving down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and seeing the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What struck him about the city was its accessibility. “It’s a city of neighborhoods. That’s what was so important to me. Ultimately, that’s why I chose Penn over other institutions,” says Beavers.

When he first arrived on campus, he was taken by the generosity of his fellow professors, some of whom would invite him to their houses to discuss their own experiences at Penn and offer wisdom. But there was one person in particular who wasn’t afraid to be blunt with him, and it would have a lasting impact.

“There was a gentleman named Harold Haskins who worked in the Vice Provost office,” says Beavers. “He put the question to me: ‘Are you going to be one of these guys that gets tenure and then we never see you again?’ It really brought me up short because I think when I engaged that question it really changed the course of my entire career at Penn. My plan was to come here, keep my head down, do my work, teach my classes, and hopefully get tenure.”

Haskins’ challenge lit a familiar fire. Beavers started doing what he had always most enjoyed: engaging with students on a deeply personal level and learning their stories.

“In my old office in Fisher-Bennett Hall, my students used to tease me because I had this couch that was the first piece of furniture I ever owned, and when I got married my wife didn’t want it in the house, so I put it in my office,” says Beavers. “A student emailed me some years after she graduated and she said to me, ‘Life was so simple when I could come to your office and sit on your couch and talk to you.’ So, the couch was a symbol of students being able to open up to me about anything.”

Herman Beavers, Professor of English and Africana Studies, lectures in an African American autobiography course during the The Center for Africana Studies Summer Institute for Pre-Freshmen in 1992.

Courtesy of Herman Beavers

The stories Beavers has helped shape are as diverse as the students themselves: a business student who found her way into acting, a National Book Award finalist, a congressman—the list goes on. 

One of the mentoring roles closest to Beavers’ heart was his work with a Black male student support group. For his first seven years at Penn, Beavers met with the group once a week. “I saw one of the guys that used to be in the support group, and our running joke is that I used to give him clothes out of my closet,” says Beavers. “He was always like, ‘Dr. B, do you have any clothes you want to part with?’ I realized those meetings were as important to me as they were to them. They gave me support in ways I don’t think they even recognized.”

When Beavers did eventually get tenure, it was a milestone for his family, he says. “Considering that my dad was an auto mechanic who worked in the Ford plant and had an eighth-grade-education, it was tremendously validating for my family.”

Beavers’ mother, who always wanted to be a teacher, put in his head at a young age the possibility of being a professor, though he didn’t consider it again until much later. “I was a senior at Oberlin and because they didn’t have graduate students, we’d lead the sections of the entry-level creative writing course ourselves, so that was my introduction to teaching,” says Beavers, who grew up in the Cleveland area and as an adolescent was impacted by the Civil Rights Movement, war protests, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, and the Kennedys. “When I was up in front of class it made me feel like I had found my place. There was this swirling feeling all around me, and it’s my mom that made that possible.”

In order to connect students to course material on a personal level, Beavers employs unique introductory exercises. “I try to enforce the idea that literature belongs to everyone,” says Beavers, who in 2017 received the Dean’s Award for Mentoring Undergraduate Research. “When I teach my course on Toni Morrison, I give students a timeline of Morrison’s life, then have them do a personal timeline. I then ask, ‘How does this fit with yours?’ The point being that she doesn’t speak to any one audience. She can tell you things about what it is to be you that nobody else can tell you.”

Toni Morrison, who passed away in August 2019, has been a constant, driving force in Beavers’ academic career, from the time he was a young scholar. His book, Geography and the Political Imaginary in the Novels of Toni Morrison, came about after he revisited her novel, Song of Solomon, which he calls life-changing.

“I had never read a book that so captured Black life from the inside without feeling the need to explain that for white audiences,” says Beavers. “It just felt like she was talking directly to me.”

For many years, Beavers served as a member of the advisory board of the Toni Morrison Society. “We weren’t intimate friends, but I spent a lot of time in her midst,” says Beavers. “Without her, I don’t know if I would’ve thought about becoming a writer. There’s just so much going on in her works that even when I pick up books that I’ve read dozens of times, I always see something different. And in that respect, for me, she’s an infinite source of ideas.”

Beavers also authored Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson, in which he offers a study of Gaines, McPherson, and Ralph Ellison as writers who found ways to portray the cultural vitality surrounding the lives of the downtrodden. In addition, Beavers is an editor at African American Review, Modern Fiction Studies, and The Black Scholar.

Finding His Rhythm

Beavers’ own journey as a poet began in his formative years. His first poem was published when he was 17, part of a contest in which the winning selection was to be placed in a time capsule and buried. “Looking back now at that poem, if aliens came down to an empty Earth, they’d say, ’No wonder they’re not here anymore. Look at this crap,’” he laughs.

Beavers’ poems have appeared in The Langston Hughes Colloquy, MELUS, Versadelphia, Cleaver Magazine, and The American Arts Quarterly, and have been anthologized in the 2014 Anthology of Featured Poets, Obsession: Sestinas for the Twenty-First Century and, most recently, an anthology titled, Who Speaks For America. He has released three chapbooks, and has a full-length collection on the way. They include: A Neighborhood of Feeling in 1986, Obsidian Blues in 2017, The Vernell Poems in 2019, and the upcoming Even in Such Light.

Beavers performs poetry readings at a variety of venues, and his material can be found online at PennSound, a vast archive of audio recordings of poets performing their own works. “I started off as somebody that really didn’t like to be in front of people, and so poetry was sort of my way to overcome that,” says Beavers. “I was so nervous during my senior creative writing major reading at Oberlin—my hands were shaking.” 

Since then, Beavers has had the opportunity to perform his poems the world over. In summer 2019 he was invited to the Yellow Crane Tower in China, a historical structure famous for featuring visiting poets of note on one of its top floors. He was also invited to compose and read a poem at the inauguration of the new president of Morehouse College.

Beavers’ poetry has not only taken him far and wide, but has also given him the opportunity to rub shoulders with musicians, visual artists, and myriad other creative types. “As scholars, we’re trying to sustain a line of inquiry. A creative artist isn’t concerned with arguing—they are seeking to establish a dialogue, which means that sometimes we place ourselves on the wrong side of an argument.”

The genres of jazz and the blues have come to inform nearly every aspect of Beavers’ creative process. His 2017 chapbook, Obsidian Blues, is a literary personification of music. “I wanted to figure out a way to think about the instrumental blues and to ask, ‘What would happen if I tried to imagine the sentiment that’s being expressed by Miles Davis, or John Coltrane, or a Lester Young, Charlie Parker, or Sonny Rollins?’”

Beavers, a novice piano player himself, jokes, “I have these big stubby fingers, so sometimes it’s a challenge for me. But it’s been great for me as a poet to learn how to play, because sometimes you have to voice a chord with the exact right fingering, which is like trying to produce an appropriate syntax in writing.”

Insights gleaned from both playing and listening to music have heavily influenced Beavers’ poetry. In Obsidian Blues, Beavers began making writing adjustments based on his enjoyment of musical phrasing in the blues, such as eliminating “to be” verbs. In the process, he became less wedded to the sentence and more driven by the phrase. “I started using semicolons and commas and dashes and things like that to really break up the sentence,” he says. “Musicians like Ornette Coleman and Keith Gerit have a little burst of really beautiful melody that then shifts into something else, so I said, ‘What would happen if I tried to do that in a poem?’”

Thematically, Beavers also wanted to address the notion that the blues are inherently tied to sadness. “The blues are actually a lot more about the ways we can be joyous and trepidatious all at once, about saying, ‘If I can metaphorize my trouble, I can make it to the next day.’ So, I thought a lot about the internal life that these people I was inventing in my head were experiencing.”

Listening to Beavers talk about jazz reveals a love that runs deep. He likens the genre to a democratic conversation. “Jazz is this really elaborate house an ensemble builds together. It doesn’t matter where you come from, because if you understand that language, you can be up on that bandstand playing ,” says Beavers. “The setlist can be the same, but every night it’s going to sound different. That’s what is both thrilling and terrifying about jazz. Like poetry, it is the practice of freedom. The challenge is to think of it as a sort of bungee cord where you go out as far as you can, but you also find your way back to the stuff that you know.”

Beavers’ love of jazz also informs his curriculum. His course, Trading Fours: The Literatures of Jazz (trading fours is a jazz term that refers to when band members exchange solos, each lasting four bars), examines the ways in which poetry, drama, and other forms of literature engage with the genre. The class has also featured various guest lecturers over the years, including one of Beavers’ heroes, the late Harrison Ridley, a local radio legend.

“Harrison Ridley on the Temple University radio station was one of the most amazing human beings I have ever met,” says Beavers. “He was a janitor in the Philadelphia School District but had this show called The Historical Approach to the Positive Music, and he would take you through a journey of all this music, focusing on one musician every week. I invited him to come to my class, and he said, ‘Well look, I’ll come to the class, but you have to have a turntable.’ So, I had to scrounge up a turntable. He comes to my class literally carrying canvas shopping bags filled with vinyl. He puts them on. He starts playing them.” 

Just as Beavers works to bring members of the community into the classroom, he is also committed to finding innovative ways for students to engage with local residents.

Out In The Neighborhood

Beavers’ commitment to community building is at the core of his educational philosophy. When he first moved to the area to start at Penn, he led a series of book discussions in the Camden County Library System. From there, Beavers worked a three-year stint with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, which saw him traveling all over the state to discuss the African American short story.

“I just really like talking to community members about things that some people might say are over the heads of those that live in certain kinds of communities, and I just have not found that to be the case,” says Beavers. “While some of the people are not necessarily college educated, they love books and they’re hungry to talk to somebody about them.”

One of the things that I want to pass on to this next generation is, “How do you engage with a community. How do you build a conversation? How do you build trust?”

Beavers’ August Wilson and Beyond course is a concerted effort to engage his students with the community of West Philadelphia. “Yes, West Philadelphia has problems like any community does, but we cannot operate from the standpoint that it’s broken,” says Beavers. “It has tremendous beauty, strength, and legacies, and it’s really been a joy to come in contact with that.”

Beavers’ muse for the course is longtime inspiration August Wilson, the creator of a seminal 10-play cycle on 20th-century Pittsburgh that forms an iconic picture of African American traumas, triumphs, and traditions throughout the decades. Undergraduates work alongside William L. Sayre High School students and West Philadelphia residents to study the works of the award-winning playwright. 

“One of the things that I want to pass on to this next generation is, ‘How do you engage with a community. How do you build a conversation? How do you build trust?’” says Beavers.

Herman Beavers, Professor of English and Africana Studies, with members from Veterans Upward Bound, a program designed for veterans seeking to regain learning skills and prepare for college-level studies.

Jared Valdez / Pennsylvania Humanities Council

Suzana Berger, C’02, who teaches the class alongside Beavers, was a student of his in the late ’90s, and collaborated with him to develop the course upon returning to live in the city. She introduced him to the late Fran Aulston, the then-Executive Director of the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. Bernadette Tanksley and Vernoca Michael, also instrumental in the formation of the course, are personal friends of Beavers, and continual collaborators. 

Beavers and Berger decided early on that rather than writing a theatrical piece, they’d have the students do interviews in the community and then write monologues performed by professional and amateur actors. “Nobody at Penn had ever structured a class this way before, so we were making history in a way,” says Beavers. 

Beavers and Berger opened the course to West Philly residents and local high schoolers, an aspect vital to the learning experience, he says. “Having a 68-year-old retired social worker talking about how gentrification impacts communities like what August Wilson is talking about in Two Trains Running—to have that is really important. In that respect, it’s kind of like jazz. Every year the class is different because we can’t rest on our laurels.”

The course, which was awarded the first Netter Center Community Engagement Prize, does not require residents to pay an auditor’s fee to attend, thanks to efforts by Berger. “Penn could make a lot of money if people wanted to take the class, and we just don’t do that, because this is an opportunity for them to have something with us that we make together, and they should not have to pay money for that,” says Beavers. “So, when we do our community event, we buy the books and we distribute them to the audience. Collaboration is about give and take.”

Beavers has also collaborated with the TRIO Veterans Upward Bound Program at Penn, a free, non-credited, non-profit, pre-college program that is federally funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. 

The program’s director reached out to him because the group was also using August Wilson to generate discussion.

“These are vets telling stories about being drug addicts and alcoholics and losing their families, and, all of a sudden, again, it’s about the stories that people are telling,” says Beavers, who first spoke with the group in 2017. “We’re talking about the plays, we’re talking about the characters, and I realize that this is the kind of teaching that I love doing. It could have been one of those things where the organizer said, ‘Dr. Herman Beavers is going to come and talk to us,’ and I could have used that as an opportunity to lecture for 50 minutes and be on my way. Instead, it worked out to be a two-and-a-half-hour conversation that I really didn’t want to end.”

Beavers continues to look for new opportunities to share his love of literature and music with new audiences. He plans to collaborate with the African American Museum in Philadelphia for an upcoming graduate seminar. The core of the class will be an introduction to jazz studies. Beavers also hopes to interface with the Philly Jazz Archives. “We’re going to use some of the materials from the museum, and we’re going to talk about jazz and memory and history,” he says. “I want the class to culminate in a free concert at the museum.”

Beavers is also in conversation with Farah Hussain of the Perelman School of Medicine about planning a class on narrative medicine, a medical approach that uses people’s narratives in clinical practice. “As a woman of color practicing medicine in the 21st century, she has a unique ability to inform the conversation,” he says.

As far as his next book topic, Beavers is interested in exploring how African American poetry deals with illness and death. “I came of age during the AIDS crisis, and poets really responded,” he says. “Now they are responding to a lot of the incidences of urban violence, so it’s a question of how poetry confronts issues of public health.”

Herman Beavers, Professor of English and Africana Studies (far left), stands with his August Wilson and Beyond co-teacher Suzana Berger, C’02 (far right), and other collaborators and class members as they accept the first Netter Center Community Engagement Prize.

Courtesy of Herman Beavers

Beavers has since moved out of Fisher-Bennett Hall to a new office in the Department of Afri-cana Studies. The couch students came to love has been retired, but the same spirit of personal connection and willingness to go above and beyond for his students remains.

“Students are at the center of what we do every day,” says Beavers. “It’s critical that we help them navigate both the world they’re leaving here, and the one that they’re walking into—and that they always have a voice.”