By Adria Carpenter
It started with “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” the first book Davu Seru read cover-to-cover, followed soon after with Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” Seru had never read books about people like him and his family before.
Now he is the new curator for The Archie Givens, Sr. Collection of African American Literature and Life, where he will preserve and advance Black culture.
“Get ready to see how the Givens Collection is more than just a collection of books,” Seru said.
This moment is a homecoming for Seru. After completing his bachelor’s English degree at Hamline University, he studied at the University of Minnesota for both his master’s and Ph.D. in English.
Seru spent countless hours in the Givens Collection — and its catalog of over 10,000 books, magazines, and pamphlets by or about African Africans — studying 1960s and ’70s literature. There he researched novels about Black culture and the sexual revolution, written primarily by Black, male authors like Hal Bennett.
In graduate school, he studied with Dr. John Wright, who brought the Givens Collection to the University of Minnesota in 1985 and served as its inaugural curator. And with then-Curator Cecily Marcus, he encouraged cross pollination between the collection and archival projects documenting Black life.
‘The revolution of everyday life’
Seru on ‘Black Market Reads’
To hear more about Seru and his work, listen to the latest episode of “Black Market Reads,” a podcast created by the Givens Foundation for African American Literature, which broadcasts “today’s most exciting Black literary voices.”
Seru brings not only first-hand experience with the Givens Collection as a scholar of archives and literature, but also as a multi-generational Minnesotan, with regional ties reaching back to 1862.
He grew up in North Minneapolis and currently lives in Frogtown, a mixed working class neighborhood in St. Paul. In 2017, he co-authored the book, “Sights, Sounds, Soul: The Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis,” based on Chamblis’ photographs of the African-American community in the Twin Cities throughout the 1970s and ‘80s.
But while combing through Chamblis’ archives, he found something surprising: photos of his own family members. Seru even discovered that a picture hanging in his house, which previously hung in his grandmother’s and mother’s home, was authored by Chamblis.
Seru believes that African-American culture, production, and preservation is fundamentally interdisciplinary. With the book, he wanted to show the significance of documenting the Black community through photography, by giving greater visibility to the actual lived experiences of African Americans, especially as a counter-statement to the false narratives spread nationally.
“Anybody carrying a phone now, with a camera on it, seems to understand that documenting our experience is both adorning the moments of our lives, but also political,” Seru said. “Chamblis understood the value, like Frederick Douglas, of documenting the best of black life. And for him, that meant the banal, mundane, the revolution of everyday life.”
Twin Citians are “just like everybody else, but we manifest our sameness differently,” he said. Like Prince and the Minneapolis sound he helped pioneer. That music could have only come from this place.
Mixing mediums and genres with improvisation
Seru carries that interdisciplinary spirit beyond literature as an improvising musician and composer. Seru has performed throughout the United States and France, and has received the McKnight Composer Award, Jerome Sound Artist/Composer Fellowship, and commissions from the Walker Art Center and Zeitgeist Ensemble.
His interest in music began when his stepfather brought home a drum kit in 1985. The drums rested behind the dining room table, and during the cold winter months, with limited indoor entertainment, he picked up the drumsticks and started playing. After high school, he studied jazz and improvisation.
“Music is something I had already been doing. It’s something that I feel like I can do without permission,” he said.
For Seru, improvisation is one link between literature and music; it’s how people navigate Black culture. In jazz and blues, genres developed by Black artists, improvisation is a cornerstone, he explained. And African-American literature has roots in the oral tradition.
“Writing as a means of expression is not that different from a saxophone solo or Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit,’” Seru said. “There’s a relationship that already exists that improvisers help to show people.”
Seru felt drawn to improvisation because of his “pride in Black culture.” He was inspired by the accomplishments of Black musicians, especially those “cultural heroes” of the late 20th century.
“I’m proud of my ancestry and my heritage, always have been,” he said
His album, “We Sick” — a collaboration with deVon Gray and Nathan Hanson, released in April 2023 — mixes improvised music and Macolm X’s 1963 speech, “The House Negro and the Field Negro,” to reflect on the George Floyd uprisings, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2020 presidential election.
“In the speech that Malcolm gives, he jokingly says the enslaved can show a greater concern for their enslaver than they do themselves,” Seru said. “And I was thinking a lot about servitude, sacrifice and illness, mental illness in particular. But also a sickness at the level of the soul.”
A community resource
Seru is excited to return to the Givens Collection and bolster its literary and archival work. But predominantly, he envisions the collection as a community hub for African-American culture, history, and lives.
“A primary objective, in coming in, is to serve academic scholars,” Seru said. “Equally important to me is making the collection a greater resource for the local African-American community.”