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Stuttering, Blackness, Legacy, Nature, and the Intersection of Them All

JJJJJerome Ellis plays the piano during his lecture in John Knowles Paine Concert Hall on Sept. 26.
JJJJJerome Ellis plays the piano during his lecture in John Knowles Paine Concert Hall on Sept. 26. By Courtesy of Niles Singer/Harvard University
By Nicole L. Guo, Contributing Writer

As this year’s Louis C. Elson lecturer, JJJJJerome Ellis — a proud stutterer and self-described animal — gave an improvisational lecture-performance on his upcoming book, “Aster of Ceremonies.” The theme of the book surrounds stuttering, Blackness, legacy, and nature. This lecture, titled “is this stutter a black chant offered by the waterside,” took place in John Knowles Paine Concert Hall on the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 26.

The Louis C. Elson Lecture series was established in 1948 by Bertha A. Elson, as a tribute to her late husband. This year’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Harvard University Department of Music and the Sound/Text Seminar at the Mahindra Humanities Center. Ellis was in esteemed company, as the predecessors of this annual event include the likes of Wadada Leo Smith, Yo-Yo Ma ’76, and Angélique Kidjo, among many others.

Ellis’s book “Aster of Ceremonies” — which is set to be released at the end of this month — is an archive of transformed run-away slave advertisements from the 18th and 19th centuries. His new poetry collection also contains music from a devotional song cycle he co-composed called “Benediction.” Having inherited his stutter from his mother, Ellis specifically selected advertisements describing slaves with speech impediments, as a way of tracing the legacy of the intersection between Blackness and stuttering, as well as connecting with his ancestors. Especially if the advertisements were the only remaining legacy of some of these slaves, Ellis wanted to transform the words into a legacy his ancestors could be proud of.

“Can the advertisement — as as you know as horrible a-as it is — can it, you know, also offer an opportunity to honor this person, to learn from this person? To, you know, a-a-and that’s a-a-a question, I don’t know what the answer is, but I’ve tried to use the poetry and the music as a way of asking those questions,” said Ellis.

Ellis modeled their novel after the method of word rearrangement that writer M. NourbeSe Philip employed in her poem “Zong!” This technique restricted him to use only the words found in the advertisements to transform their meanings from one that depicted oppression to one that celebrated life.

“I wanted to find another way of responding to these advertisements, particularly in the brevity and the violence of their o-o-of their brevity. And I have been thinking about these people moving through the landscape and the way that different landscapes have sheltered B-B-Black people,” Ellis shared.

Ellis further explained that he addressed this violence by inserting their own stutter into the text, the long pauses of which broke up any semblance of the violent brevity imposed by the original form of the advertisements.

Another important aspect of Ellis’s lecture was the emphasis he placed on ensuring the audience felt comfortable in the hall. He particularly wanted to establish freedom of movement, something he himself later took advantage of when he walked off the stage playing his saxophone and enveloping the audience with his music.

“I encourage everyone to feel free to leave at any point, [and] come back. I want this space to feel as relaxed as possible,” said Ellis.

From his use of granular synthesis to create an ambient backing track, to playing the saxophone — his companion of over 20 years — as well as singing and playing the piano, Ellis deeply moved the audience with his talents and use of stutter as a source of both innovation and defiance. Andrew G. Clark, Director of Choral Activities and Senior Lecturer on Music at Harvard University, remarked on how inspiring Ellis’s lecture was.

“What moved me a great deal was the way in which he views his stuttering as this resource of ingenuity in his art making and as a way in which he connects with the mystical and the divine. Rather than as a deficit or pathology or impairment, it becomes something that is empowering and a source of creativity,” said Clark.

Cody Chou ’25 attended the lecture as part of Clark’s seminar course Music 176R: “Music and Disability” and was also impressed by the nature of Ellis’s performance.

“I think it’s phenomenal, going to a concert that kind of requires you to shift your perspective regarding music and disability,” said Chou.

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