Swift pursues poetry, scholarship through UCARE and the work of Charles Chesnutt

Bianca Swift reads from her work during a poetry event at Sheldon Museum Art gallery
Photo credit: Erin Chambers

April 22, 2019 by Erin Chambers

Sophomore English major Bianca Swift has been exploring the intersection of history and poetry in her work with The Charles Chesnutt Digital Archive.

Charles Chesnutt is one of the most important African American writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Years before the Harlem Renaissance, Chesnutt was writing books, stories, essays, and speeches about race and justice in the United States. Born in 1858, Chesnutt moved from North Carolina to Cleveland in 1883 where he began to write in earnest. He has become a major figure in American literary studies and the goal of the The Charles Chesnutt Digital Archive is to create a comprehensive digital archive of his work.

Bianca Swift with Chesnutt Digital Archive co-editors Stephanie Browner and Kenneth M. Price
Bianca Swift and Chesnutt Digital Archive co-editors Stephanie Browner and Kenneth M. Price (courtesy photo)

With the support of UCARE and her advisors, Matt Cohen and Kenneth Price, Swift has been transcribing and encoding letters between Charles Chesnutt and other black intellectuals such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Her editorial work will join The Charles Chesnutt Digital Archive’s current collection of thirty six stories, seventeen essays, one novel, one biography, three poems, and five reviews written by Chesnutt.

In March, Swift traveled to New York City to participate in a panel at the Society for Textual Scholarship’s annual conference. Her paper, “’There’s time enough, but none to spare’: The Letters of Charles Chesnutt and the Black Intelligentsia,” detailed how she came across Chesnutt and the UCARE program, how she transcribes and encodes documents for digital archiving, and how her poetry incorporates striking ideas and phrases found in Chesnutt’s letters. At the conclusion of her talk, a prominent librarian and curator praised Swift’s blend of editorial and creative work, saying, “You just won the conference.”

Swift read two of her poems inspired by Chesnutt’s letters at the Sheldon Museum of Art on Tuesday, April 2 at a kick-off event for the university’s Creative Writing Month festivities. Poetry and performance are familiar languages for Swift, who is a member of the UNL Slam Poetry Team and participated in Louder Than a Bomb—the largest youth poetry festival in the Midwest—during her high school years at Omaha Burke. This spring, she won the Vreeland Award for Poetry, an award given by the Department of English that honors outstanding undergraduate poetry and comes with a $500 prize.

Bianca is looking forward to further work with UCARE and expressed her gratitude for the educational opportunities it supplies. “[The trip to NYC] was truly amazing,” she said. Students can learn more about UCARE on their website and find opportunities—like Bianca’s—to pursue research and creative activity in partnership with UNL faculty, projects, and publications.