One professor aims for the prize

Hamline’s own Professor Davu Seru has been nominated for the Minnesota Book Award.

Kelly Holm, Reporter

If there’s anyone who can testify to the powerful difference a year can make, it’s Hamline English Professor Davu Seru. In January 2017, Seru had never even heard the name Charles Chamblis before. A year later, he learned that his book “Sounds, Sights, Soul: The Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis” was one of four tomes nominated for the Minnesota Book Award in the category of Minnesota-focused nonfiction.

“The Minnesota Historical Society Press asked me to [write this book],” Seru said.

“I was recommended to them… They asked me if I would consider writing the text for a book they were interested in publishing that presented photos from an archive that they had acquired, [which were taken] by a black photographer named Charles Chamblis.”

Lovingly dubbed “The Pictureman” by the locals whose lives he captured, Chamblis spent the 1970s and 1980s documenting the everyday lives of African-Americans in the Twin Cities through photography. All varieties of subject matter, from musical gatherings to casual summer picnics, were immortalized under Chamblis’ lens.

“[The Minnesota Historical Society Press] wanted the book done in three months,” Seru said. “It took me seven. In part because the essays [I wrote for] the book are ones that… put Chamblis’ work in a broader historical context… About what it would be like as an especially visible portion of the population despite our relative minority status [as African-Americans].”

Seru continued, explaining how he had found his inspiration within the book. “I only felt ‘inspired’ after I visited the archive for the first time at the Minnesota History Center. In part because as I was going through the photos I started to recognize places that are no longer around, but were in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Then I started encountering people that I recognized from that time, and now, particularly, family members of my own.”

Seru described it as a complete shock to come across a photograph of his family in the archives which he actually owns a copy of, passed down from his grandmother.

“I’d never heard the name [Charles Chamblis] before, but what I also didn’t know was that I’d been living with one of his photographs for my entire life… It was a photo of my family… at the Elks Club… in February of 1976,” he said. “The black and white copy appears in the book, but I own a color version of it. I was inspired in part that my family could be the subject of history, in a broader sense.”

Seru says he learned of his nomination for the Minnesota Book Award at the end of January via email.

“[I reacted] sort of like I am now,” he mused calmly. “I got other things I’m doin’, so I’m not really that tuned into it.”

In terms of those other things, Seru is on the path to a PhD, and his dissertation focuses on satirical author Hal Bennett.

“[It] will very likely become a book,” he said. “The Chamblis book is a sort of history, but I’m a literary scholar.”

He is also a prolific composer and drummer, and is due to release his first record this year with his band, No Territory Band. The album’s title, “The Hole in the Wall in the Bucket,” refers to a black urban folktale.

“In that case, I’m putting my work as a literary scholar in conversation with my work as a composer,” he explained.

In the nearer future, however, Seru is due to learn the results of his Minnesota Book Award nomination on April 21, in a ceremony held at St. Paul’s InterContinental Riverfront hotel.

Win or lose, he knows that the results will not make or break him- the most important  thing about the project in his eyes, he says, is “how meaningful it would be to the black community that identifies with North Minneapolis as home.”