Detroit poet, activist and educator Gloria House has been named the 2019 Kresge Eminent Artist.
The announcement came Thursday evening at the Masonic Temple’s Jack White Theater at the conclusion of a program honoring the first 10 Kresge Eminent Artists. A collaboration between the Foundation and Detroit Public Television, the “Kresge Honors” program will be broadcast on Feb. 15.
House has published four poetry collections, Blood River (1983), Rainrituals (1989), Shrines (2003) and Medicine (2017) under her chosen African name, Aneb Kgositsile. House has also been an activist since the student and civil rights movement of the 1960s and a professor at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
In his 2017 foreword to Medicine, Michael Simanga places House in the tradition of African American poets who “function as a type of seer, someone who could look into the soul of a moment with its sweet and bitter seconds, and dig out evidence of our humanity.”
“For me, the poetry always found its way through all the other things I did – working full time, building community institutions, raising my son,” House says. “I couldn’t ever set time aside just for writing because I had so many other commitments. I have never set out to write a manuscript. The poems have just made their way through all of the other concerns.”
Since retiring from teaching full-time at Wayne State University in 1998 and from UM-Dearborn in 2014, House has served as a co-editor of Riverwise quarterly magazine. She continues to work as senior editor at Broadside Lotus Press, having volunteered with Broadside in various capacities for more than 40 years. (Broadside Lotus is a merger of the separate Broadside and Lotus presses.)
She is also a participant in We the People of Detroit, a citizen collective engaged in education and advocacy work surrounding the local crises of water shutoffs, education and land use. Additionally, House is active in the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement, a community effort “to create free, African-centered, loving educational experiences for Detroit children and families.”
House is the 11th metro Detroit artist to receive the Kresge Eminent Artist award since 2008 in recognition of professional achievements in an art form, contributions to the cultural community and dedication to Detroit and its residents. Her predecessors as Kresge Eminent Artists have been visual artist Charles McGee, the late jazz musician Marcus Belgrave, playwright Bill Harris, poet-publisher Naomi Long Madgett, impresario David DiChiera, the late photographer Bill Rauhauser, textile artist Ruth Adler Schnee, photographer Leni Sinclair, harpist-educator Patrica Terry-Ross and jazz saxophonist Wendell Harrison.
In addition to the cash award, the Eminent Artist honor includes the creation of an artist monograph that will chronicle House’s life and career. (The book, to be distributed to the public this summer at no cost, can be preordered by sending your name and mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The Kresge Arts in Detroit office at the College for Creative Studies administers the Kresge Eminent Artist Award, Kresge Arts Fellowships and the Gilda Awards. The awards and the Kresge Arts in Detroit office are funded by The Kresge Foundation, a national private foundation based in metro Detroit, as part of its Detroit Program. Kresge’s Detroit Program collaborates with civic, nonprofit and business partners to promote and expand long-term, equitable opportunity in the foundation’s hometown.
In the first 10 years, the Kresge Arts in Detroit initiative has provided over $5 million of direct, no-strings-attached support through more than 200 awards given to artists residing in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. This includes support to the local film, music, visual, literary and performing arts communities, including $500,000 cumulatively to the first 10 selected Kresge Eminent Artists.
The awards celebrate and invest in the creativity and accomplishments of Detroit artists, elevate the position and contributions of the creative sector, and strengthen Detroit's position as a major center for arts and culture nationally and internationally.
“I was stunned to receive news of the award,” House says. “What is so special about it is to have the award conferred by a circle of artists. That kind of affirmation feels wonderful. My work is so clearly political, yet they have seen the beauty of it.”
“Any single aspect of House’s illustrious career as an activist, artist and educator could be considered a lifetime achievement,” says Kresge President Rip Rapson. “Her accomplishments and influence in shaping culture over the course of several decades reflect a remarkable commitment to freedom of expression and the enrichment of the lives of others.”
"As a poet, activist and educator, Dr. House's multidimensional career exemplifies the talent, vision and influence that the Kresge Eminent Artist award exists to recognize," says College for Creative Studies President Richard L. Rogers. "CCS is honored to partner with The Kresge Foundation to celebrate Dr. House's lifelong commitment to creativity and the advancement of human rights."
Early Life and Schooling
House was born in 1941 in Tampa, Florida, and lived extensively abroad with her mother and stepfather, who was a U.S. Air Force careerman. Her early international travels made her a keen observer of life around her. She began writing poetry as a child, inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar and the powerful words of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” now widely known as the Black National Anthem.
A student of French literature, by the time she was 18 she had received a diploma in French Studies from the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies in California and looked forward to a career in international relations. In 1961, at age 20, she was awarded a bachelor’s degree from University of California, Berkeley in French with a minor in political science. The following year, she completed the Cours Pédagogique program at the Alliance Française in Paris, where she met African students who were engaged in political activities that energized and inspired her.
“They were concerned about revolutionary movements in their countries and they educated me about colonialism,” House recalls. “In Paris I started to see myself as belonging to that larger African diaspora. When I came back to Berkeley to start my master’s degree, I was in a different space because I was seeing the role of the United States from a very different perspective.”
While working on her graduate degree in comparative literature at Berkeley, she became involved in the Free Speech Movement, the first of the 1960s campus clashes to command national attention. The movement, which included a campus-wide boycott of classes, centered on student demands for the freedom to exercise political views and rights on campus.
House left campus during the summer of 1965 to join the civil rights movement and teach in a Freedom School in Selma, Alabama, one of a number of such schools set up in by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to counter the inferior Jim Crow public schools of the South. While picketing, she was arrested in Lowndes County. A friend who had been arrested at the same time was murdered upon the group’s release, another was critically wounded.
“I went back to Berkeley, stayed a few days and realized I could not come back to university. Academic life paled in comparison to what I had just experienced. So I returned to the South, carrying my master’s thesis all over Lowndes County.” (House ended up completing her master’s in comparative literature from UC Berkeley in 1969). She spent a formative two years as a SNCC field secretary. House drafted SNCC’s 1966 statement against the Vietnam War, the first such statement from a major civil rights organization.
“SNCC was such an incredible collection of human beings. I was in awe of my co-workers. They were so brilliant, disciplined and dedicated. I had never seen an organization of twenty-somethings running the show. There were no elders; we were, of course, in a precious relationship with local community elders, but SNCC was our organization. We were selecting field secretaries, figuring out budgets, managing a fleet of cars, operating a press, publishing a newsletter and booklets. I felt so exhilarated to be among them and to make these changes we believed in,” House says of her experiences with SNCC.
Looking back on that work now, House says she couldn’t have understood the legacy that SNCC’s work would establish: “I knew we were doing something important, but we couldn’t have known the historic impact and significance of our work at that point. And we didn’t really understand that the toll from having done the work would come later, as we all aged. Because even though we pushed ourselves to do the work, we were under constant threat of loss of life. We were living with that stress and terror every day.”
House Makes Her Way In Detroit
House married and moved to Detroit in 1967, pregnant with her son, Uri Heru House. She gave birth shortly before the rebellion in July of that year.
“My first impressions of Detroit were very positive. I loved the city. The whole city was enveloped in Motown music. It was my first time being in a majority black city. I had grown up all over and, of course, had lived in black communities, but here, we were in positions of responsibility all over the city, in so many capacities. I found that very exciting.”
House taught French language and advanced composition at Cass Technical High School and served as copy editor of the editorial and op-ed pages at the Detroit Free Press before beginning a lifelong career as a university-level educator, receiving her Ph.D. in American culture/history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
At Wayne State University, House was a professor of African American literature, American culture and research methods in the Interdisciplinary Studies Program, and was co-chair of the WSU Black Caucus. At the University of Michigan-Dearborn, she designed the major in African American and African Studies, served as the program director, and was appointed professor emerita upon her retirement in 2014.
She was also visiting professor in the English Department at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa from 1992 to 1995. House won the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching at Wayne State University, where she was also named associate professor emerita in 1998.
While teaching, she continued her engagement in political activism as cofounder of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality in 1996, to make the case that police violence against African Americans had not abated over the 22 years since STRESS (Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets), the notorious police undercover decoy unit, had been disbanded. She also co-founded the Justice for Cuba Coalition, and helped to develop three African-centered schools in Detroit − Aisha/Dubois Academy, Nsoroma Public School Academy and Timbuktu Academy − among other activities.
For her social justice work, House has received numerous honors, including the Lifetime Civil Rights Activist Award from the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights (2017), the Edward Said Scholar-Activist Award from the Michigan Peace Team (2012), and the Harriet Tubman Award of the National Organization of Women, Wayne County Chapter (2011).
A Blend of Talents
Teaching is a career that afforded her the opportunity to support students in discovering their abilities and interests as young leaders. Her skills and dedication to cultivating the careers of emerging writers is apparent in her outstanding commitment to Broadside Lotus Press. She notes she inherited her approach to mentoring from the late Dudley Randall, who founded Broadside Press in 1965.
“I started working with Broadside in the mid ’70s. I was impressed with the Broadside poets I met, and with the repertory that Dudley had built. He accepted an array of styles, subjects, topics and put out books by emerging, unknown artists that sold in the thousands,” she says.
Over the years, House has assisted in organizing and programming at Broadside Lotus and edited many books of poetry. She served as lead editor of the Notable Books of Michigan award-winning anthology, A Different Image: The Legacy of Broadside Press (2004), and since 2016 has been the series editor for the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award books. (Madgett is the Detroit Poet Laureate, succeeding Randall, and the 2012 Kresge Eminent Artist.)
“Detroit is full of unique, multidimensional talents,” says Njia Kai, a cultural programmer and filmmaker who sat on this year’s Eminent Artist panel. “But there’s one thing about her − she is an extremely intelligent person, yet she has such a graceful, quiet way of commanding a room. This award represents a great opportunity to focus on someone with her blend of talents and impact, and to show a respect for the activist-artist.”
House’s own conception of her lifelong career as an artist has evolved gradually over time. “I never really identified with the narrow definition of a poet as someone who writes in a solitary life, then stands in front of people and reads,” she explains. “My life didn’t evolve that way.”
In reading Nubia Kai’s book Kuma Malinke Historiography (2014) about the griot in West African cultures, House says she found described there the role that aligns with her own work. “In traditional African societies, the poet has so many functions – responding to the concerns of the community. I realized I belong to that tradition. I have been living that way of being a poet.”
House was selected to receive the award by an esteemed group of artists and arts professionals, which for the first time included a previous Kresge Eminent Artist award recipient:
- Juanita Anderson: Filmmaker; Director of Media Arts and Studies, Wayne State University Department of Communication
- Bill Harris: Playwright; Poet; Novelist; Emeritus Professor, Wayne State University; 2011 Kresge Eminent Artist
- Njia Kai: Special Events and Programming Director, NKSK Events + Production
- Marsha Music: Writer; Poet; Storyteller; 2012 Kresge Artist Fellow
- Michelle Perron: Director, Office of Exhibitions and Public Programs, College for Creative Studies; Founding Director, Kresge Arts in Detroit
- Mark Stryker: Author, Jazz from Detroit (forthcoming, University of Michigan Press); Detroit Free Press Arts Reporter and Critic (1995-2016); 2012 Kresge Artist Fellow