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Duke Professor Carries On Tradition Of Black Radical Poetry

Fred Moten
Duke University

Fred Moten grew up in a home and in a time where revolution was not portrayed as a romantic dream for the future, but a vital necessity for survival. He was raised in Las Vegas in the late '60s and '70s by a family who understood the need for change.

“Las Vegas was known as the Mississippi of the West,” said Moten on the State of Things. He is a poet and a professor of modern poetry at Duke University. His mother was one of many activists in Las Vegas struggling against the violence of racism during the late '50s into the '70s.  

“I remember when Martin Luther King was shot. I remember that being a major event. I remember my mom crying. I remember knowing it had something deep and fundamental to do with me and with my life and my chances,” Moten said. 

From Las Vegas, Moten went to Pittsburgh and Arkansas following his mother’s thirst for education and caring for his grandfather. Soon after his travels, he applied and was enrolled at Harvard University. It wasn’t exactly what he thought it would be. 

“I felt I would join a young cohort of Black people who were going to Harvard to train themselves to be a revolutionary cohort…That we were going there to learn things that would allow us to change the world,” said Moten. “And when I got there it was not quite that way.”  

After his first year struggling to find his place at Harvard in 1981, he took a hiatis. He took a job at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in Las Vegas for a year, and it was there that he realized his tool for revolution was poetry.  

“I find myself cleaning toilets and looking in my reflection in the mirror of the bathroom,” Moten describes. “We had to work for eight hours a day, but we didn’t necessarily have eight hours of work to do, so what we did was find other things to do.”

So Moten found friends to talk philosophy with at the test site. And he wrote over 1,000 sonnets that year. Then he found it was time to return to Harvard. 

Fred Moten’s literary influences have spanned the likes of everyone from Amiri Baraka to Wallace Stevens and even Emily Dickinson. His years of academic and poetic exploration led him to Durham, North Carolina where he now resides. 

“I believe more intensely than I did before in the importance of thinking and study, and the importance of thinking and study to liberation.” he said. "That these things are bound up with one another in ways I’m still trying to consider and involve myself in.”

Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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