Her words reverberated throughout the classical dome of Low Library’s rotunda, evoking the ancient Greek literature to which she alludes in her plays. She began with her first of a million suggestions: “Entertain all your far-out ideas.” She paused, looking up at the expansive ceiling and out at the sea of faces before her in Low Library’s rotunda. “It sounds good in here.”
On Thursday, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter, musician, and novelist Suzan-Lori Parks spoke at a nontraditional lecture she called “A Million Suggestions,” which was one of Columbia’s Core Curriculum events. Parks’ works are known for their experimentation with language and dialect as well as her exploration of the contemporary black experience.
Parks’ three-part play “Father Comes Home from the Wars” was recently added to the Literature Humanities syllabus. The play is heavily influenced by Greek literature and simultaneously confronts topics of slavery and the Civil War.
Far from a traditional book talk, Parks’ lecture incorporated enthusiastic gestures, startling sounds, and original songs that brought her journey as writer to life.
When prompted about her thought process behind the title “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” Parks recalled that her father served as a career officer in the army, and the recurring motif in her life was her father’s return from the wars.
“[The title is] a record, if you will … that’s been playing in my head, in my person, for a long, long time,” Parks said.
In an interview with Spectator, Joanna Stalnaker, chair of Literature Humanities, spoke about the decision to add the work to the syllabus for the fall semester, when students typically read ancient Greek texts, instead of alongside more contemporary literature in the spring.
“I like this idea of disrupting the chronology [of the curriculum], which is actually something that Parks has herself has written about … in the sense that she's trying to access the distant past and the more recent American past, and sort of engage with the present,” she said.
The decision marks a broader effort to diversify the course’s curriculum in the face of controversy regarding the “whiteness” and “maleness” of the syllabus, according to Stalnaker.
“Introducing [Parks in the fall] seemed to me to be a way of introducing certain themes and problems that otherwise might be pushed back and not addressed,” Stalnaker said. “[It] encourages us to go to some of those issues more quickly, and then keep talking about them over the course of the year.”
Parks, who initially intended to be a chemistry major and had few intentions of becoming a writer, reflected on a particular turning point in her career that helped her establish and embrace her identity as a writer: a writing class she took with renowned African-American novelist, playwright, and poet James Baldwin.
“He taught me how to conduct myself in the presence of the spirit. If you treat the spirit as an honored guest, you are welcoming to all of your ideas, you are respectful to the spirit—as you would be respectful to a lover, as you would be respectful to a raging, exploding volcano,” Parks said.
Interspersed with her anecdotes were inspiring “suggestions.” Perhaps the most prevailing theme among them was her emphasis on the power of the individual and the important role that every audience member holds as part of the Columbia community.
“Today, now, is an excellent moment to start doing your thing. Today is an excellent day to do what Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world,’” she smiled. “We are counting on you to lead us through. If these are difficult times, and they are, know that we are counting on you to lead us through.”
As the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Parks reflected on her response to the routine inquiry of “What does it feel like?”
“I’m grateful and appreciative of the people who came before me,” she said, gesturing around the room. “When our forefathers and foremothers thought of better times, this is what they were dreaming of.”
Parks made another silly, eccentric, raspberry-like loud sound into the microphone—one of many throughout the lecture—and it echoed throughout the vast space.
“Suggestion number one million is: Enjoy the trip.”