UI poetry professor to create book about African American trailblazer using Guggenheim grant

Tracie Morris, the UI’s first Black professor of poetry, has been selected for the Guggenheim Fellowship. Morris plans to write a book about Black theater icon Ira Aldridge using her fellowship.


Contributed by Tracie Morris.

Jenna Post, Arts Reporter

University of Iowa Professor of Poetry Tracie Morris said that, while she wasn’t anticipating receiving a Guggenheim fellowship — one of the most prestigious art grants in North America — it felt fated the moment she received a letter informing her that she’d won.

The poet had been talking on the phone with a friend who had also received a Guggenheim fellowship when she received an email congratulating her for her achievement. The email came as a surprise — Morris hadn’t been informed that she’d been selected yet.

To this day, Morris isn’t sure how the email sender found out before she did, but shortly after receiving the email, she opened a letter officially informing her that she was joining the ranks of her friend on the phone.

“It was really perfect,” Morris said. “I couldn’t have thought of a better moment than to be speaking with this person at the time that I found out.”

The Guggenheim Fellowship has honored artists who have produced exceptional works of art or show a strong academic understanding of the arts since 1925. The UI has many Guggenheim Fellows in its history, including International Writing Program Director Christopher Merrill.

Using the funding from her fellowship, Morris plans to develop a book about Ira Aldridge, an African American Shakespearian actor who performed in the 19th century. Morris has been studying Aldridge for the past decade, inspired by the feats he accomplished as a Black person in the 1800s.

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Aldridge was born in New York City in 1807. Although free himself, slavery was still legal in New York. Performance opportunities for free African Americans mostly consisted of minstrel shows— variety shows created by white Americans that depicted racist stereotypes of African Americans.

Aldridge used white audiences’ racist expectations to get them to watch him perform. He’d begin the show with a well-known minstrel song, then proceeded to perform Shakespearian monologues. Later, he would become the first Black man to professionally play Othello.

“He just refused to let the world make him smaller,” Morris said. “He was determined to make the best of the world, to make himself big, and in turn to make the world bigger.”

Morris said she admires Aldridge’s accomplishments, and also relates to his journey on a personal level.

“As the first African American tenured professor of poetry in the history of the workshop, I don’t feel like I can hold a candle to Aldridge,” Morris said. “But I do understand a tiny bit about the position of ‘first thing,’ being a first Black person of something, and so it’s just really meaningful to me to work on this project.”

Similar to Aldridge, Morris said that her work pushes boundaries in the art world, which is why she felt pleasantly surprised to be selected for the fellowship.

“I’m not the only experimental or innovative or avant-garde, or whatever you want to call it. I’m not the only poet that’s received this kind of recognition from the foundation,” she said. “But I take it as a good sign, because I think that the idea of poetry camps is really sort of dated, and I think that things are really changing and expanding.”

Morris said she is excited to use her platform to share Aldridge’s story and honor his accomplishments by continuing his legacy of breaking barriers.

“This kind of recognition, I accept on all those for all of those people who blazed that trail before I did,” she said.