Aubert, Alvin 1930–
Alvin Aubert 1930–
Poet, educator, editor, publisher
The dream of an education motivates many people, but few individuals who drop out of school at age 14 ever manage to fulfill that dream as aptly as Alvin Aubert. Aubert grew from a teenager, who was not fond of reading, into a college English professor and accomplished poet and author. The journey from his childhood in Louisiana to New York and finally to Detroit, is one of growth and achievement. At the end of his career, Aubert had achieved award-winning success as an author and educator and moved far beyond the small room in his grandfather’s house where he was born.
Alvin Aubert was born on March 12, 1930, in Lutcher, Louisiana. He was the youngest of seven surviving children born to Albert Aubert and Lucille Marie Rousel Aubert. Aubert’s father earned his living doing seasonal work harvesting rice and sugarcane and working in the lumber mill before the depression closed the mill. Aubert grew up in the house that his father had built behind his own father’s house. The family lived along the levee, which provided Aubert and his friends with their own playground. In a 2001 interview with Ronald Dorris for Xavier Review, Aubert recalled his childhood on the levee and how as a child, he “would slide down its grassy slopes on sheets of cardboard, our version of northern tobogganing. Or we’d roll our bodies down, or run races along the crest of the levee.” It was the Depression, and the family had little money for extras, but playing on the levee with friends was free entertainment for Aubert who grew up without sibling playmates, he being a much younger child than his brothers and sisters.
Aubert’s early education was at the Cypress Grove School in Lutcher. While still in elementary school, he began taking piano lessons from his aunt Georgine Poche, who also taught him to sing. Aubert’s elementary school education ended with seventh grade and his graduation as class valedictorian from Cypress Grove. Singing and playing piano continued to be important activities even after Aubert completed his primary schooling. While Aubert never became an accomplished pianist, singing would teach him an appreciation of lyrics and language. Piano, though, did serve as an entertaining outlet for him to master popular music,
At a Glance …
Born on March 12, 1930, in Lutcher, LA; divorced first wife; married Bernadine Tenant; children: (first marriage) Stephanie, (second marriage) Miriam, Deborah (deceased). Education: Southern University, BA, 1959; University of Michigan, MA, 1960; University of Illinois, post-graduate study, 1963–64; 1966–67.
Career: Southern University instructor, 1960–62, assistant professor, 1962–65, associate professor, 1965–70; State University of New York at Fredonia, associate professor, 1970–74, professor, 1974–79; poet, 1972–; Obsidian, editor and publisher, 1975–85; Wayne State University, professor, 1979–93, interim director of the Center for Black Studies, 1988–90, interim chair of the Department of Africana Studies, 1990.
Awards: Liberal Arts Scholarship, 1957–59; Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship, 1959–60; Bread Loaf Scholarship in Poetry, Bread Loaf Writer’ Conference, 1968; National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship grant, 1973; National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship grant, 1981; Callaloo Award, 1988; Xavier Activist for the Humanities Award, 2001.
Addresses: Home — 18234 Parkside St, Detroit, Ml 48221.
as well as try his hand at composing his own popular tunes.
In 1943 there were almost no opportunities for black students to attend high school, and nearly all formal education for blacks ended with the seventh grade. Initially after elementary school, Aubert was sent to New Orleans to live with his father’s sister, Aunt Mimi, while he attended Albert Wicker High School. A general unhappiness at school and his homesickness got in the way of schooling, and within three weeks, Aubert was back home. He was then enrolled for eighth grade at Fifth Ward High School, in Reserve, Louisiana. Fifth Ward was the first public high school for blacks, but there was no arrangement in place for transporting black students. Occasionally one of the three black men in the area who owned a truck would come by and offer Aubert a ride. There was also a train that ran into New Orleans, followed by a long walk from the train station, but those days were few and far between since he rarely had the money to pay for train fare. For the most part, Aubert walked the 24 miles to attend Fifth Ward. Although he had hoped to attend college eventually, the effort to get to school each day proved too difficult and Aubert dropped out of school just before completing the ninth grade. Although he had not been able to complete high school while in Louisiana, his brief experience at Fifth Ward had awakened a desire to learn more about language and poetry.
Aubert was 14 years old when he left school, and he soon found a job delivering groceries and clerking at Achille’s Cash Store, in Lutcher. Although he was no longer in school, he had not given up on education. Aubert wanted to be accepted for pilot training at Tuskegee and knew that a high school diploma was required. Initially he sent away for a book, High School Subjects Self-Taught, that he hoped would help him complete his studies. When that proved to be too difficult, he signed up for a high school correspondence course from the American School in Chicago. Although Aubert never completed his course work, he read every thing that he could find—all in preparation for the day when he would finally have the opportunity to complete his high school requirements.
Aubert’s interest in poetry also continued, although most often it found an outlet in his appreciation and study of popular songs from the 1940s “Hit Parade,” which he heard on the radio. In Lutcher, he had only limited access to poetry books and no knowledge that poetry was available in literature anthologies. But Aubert’s limited awareness of the world changed when he joined the army in 1947. He was only 17 years old and had to convince his parents to sign an age waiver before he was allowed to enlist on his birthday. It was in the army that Aubert first discovered the existence of poetry anthologies. In an autobiographical piece that he submitted to Contemporary Authors Autobiography (CAA) in 1994, Aubert wrote about the significance of this moment: “Only after I went into the army and caught my first glimpse of the inside of a library did I realize the existence of such books.” The experience proved to be an important first step toward discovering poetry. Aubert was soon able to buy his first poetry anthology, which led him to attempt writing his own popular songs.
It would also be the army that would finally help Aubert find a way to finish high school. The same year that he joined the army, he passed the General Educational Development (GED) test with high scores. The following year, Aubert married his first wife, with whom he had a daughter, Stephanie. While in the Army, Aubert signed up for correspondence courses from the United States Armed Forces Institute. Most of these courses were never completed. But he did not give up, and as he told Jerry W. Ward Jr. in an 1989 interview for Black American Literature Forum, eventually he signed up for an extension class on literature that was offered through the University of California. Aubert enjoyed the class, earned a B, and “was more or less hooked on literature from that point on.” While in the army, Aubert attained the rank of master sergeant, the highest non-commissioned rank available to an enlisted man. Aubert told CAA that the high score on his GED and his success in the army were both the result of his continued efforts to educate himself. He also credits both the “solid elementary educational foundation I received at Cypress Grove School, and the undeniably beneficial experience of military discipline” for this success. While Aubert had many successes in the army, there were also low points. He began drinking alcohol heavily (which he quit cold turkey years later), and at some point during his army enlistment, Aubert and his wife divorced.
After his stint in the Army ended in 1954, Aubert worked the night shift for a year at Veron Provision Company, preparing meat orders. During this same period, he was applying for college admission, intending to use the G. I. Bill to pay his way. Aubert first applied for admission at Louisiana College in Pineville, but was rejected because he was not white. He next applied at Xavier University in New Orleans but was not considered adequately prepared for college because he had taken so few high school courses. Aubert next applied at Southern University in Baton Rouge, where he was accepted and began taking classes in 1955. In addition to his studies, he became a member of the Riverbend Players, a theater group that was associated with the English department. Southern had no theater major, nor any way for Aubert to study acting or playwriting, and so his focus became English. Aubert was awarded a liberal arts scholarship for his final two years of study and completed his bachelor’s degree in 1959 with a major in English and a minor in French. After graduating from Southern, he received a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship, which allowed him to enroll in a graduate program at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Aubert earned a master’s degree in English language and literature in 1960, after only a year and a half of study.
With his graduate degree completed, Aubert returned to Southern University, this time as an instructor. In October of 1960, shortly after his return to Louisiana, Aubert married a second time, this time to Bernadine Tenant, a teacher and librarian, whom he had met years earlier as a member of the Riverbend Players. Then, in 1962, Aubert was promoted to assistant professor and given the first of two sabbaticals for post-graduate study at the University of Illinois, where he was able to concentrate on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature and begin work on a doctorate. After his first sabbatical ended in 1964, Aubert returned to Southern and was promoted to associate professor in 1965, at which time he returned to Illinois for the second of his two sabbaticals. Eventually Aubert chose not to complete a doctorate and, instead, returned to Southern to continue teaching. While at Southern, he finally had his first poems published in the January 1967 edition of the Xavier student literary magazine Motive. That same year, Aubert had two of his poems published in an anthology, Southern Writing in the Sixties: Poetry.
In 1967 Southern University also decided to offer its first course on African-American literature, which Aubert was assigned to teach. He had never studied African-American literature as a student and there were few books available at Southern, and so at age 37, Aubert began for the first time to study black literature and history. This study would eventually have a huge influence on his own writing, as he became more aware of other African-American writers as he read their works. In 1968 Aubert received the first of many awards for writing when he was selected as the Bread Loaf Scholar in Poetry at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
In 1970 Aubert left Southern University to take a position at State University of New York (SUNY), in Fredonia, where he became an associate professor. After the move from Louisiana, he found it easier to write about the South. In his 1989 interview with Ward, Aubert said that he “needed the removal, the distancing from the area of primal experience” before he could gain the perspective necessary in order to write more poems about his life in Louisiana. In 1972 he published his first book of poetry, Against the Blues, a collection of poems that reflected Aubert’s personal experiences in Louisiana. His success as a writer led to his receiving a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship grant in 1973. That same year two of his poems were selected for inclusion in another anthology, Contemporary Poetry in America. While at SUNY, he also found time to launch a journal, Obsidian. Aubert told CAA that “My two main purposes in starting Obsidian was to provide a place to publish for young writers who had difficulty in getting their works published elsewhere; and to create a forum for the critical discussion of works by African and African-American writers generally.” Obsidian became a successful journal under Aubert’s leadership, providing the sort of publishing resource that he had himself needed when he first began to write poetry.
Aubert published his second book of poetry in 1976. Feeling Through contained the familiar personal reflections of the sort found in his first book but also included more political poems about black cultural heroes and heroines. The following year, two of Aubert’s poems were selected for inclusion in Celebrations: An Anthology of Black Poetry, and in 1978, two poems appeared in Contemporary Southern Poetry. Even while he continued to write poetry, Aubert was also teaching and editing Obsidian and spending time with his family, which now included two daughters, Miriam and Deborah. Aubert received another honor in 1979 when he received an Editorial Fellowship Grant from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines. But 1979 would be his last year at SUNY. When he was offered an appointment as professor of English at Wayne State University, Aubert and his family moved to Detroit in 1979.
While at Wayne State, Aubert taught creative writing and African-American literature, and continued to write poetry. During his first year in Detroit, he contributed four poems to another anthology, A Geography of Poets. Then, in 1981, Aubert received a second National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship grant for poetry, which enabled him to once again concentrate on his writing. A third book of poetry was published in 1985, South Louisiana: New and Selected Poems. As the title of his third book suggested and as he would tell Xavier Review years later, Louisiana retained a hold on Aubert, even though he had not lived there for 15 years. He explained that “All of my poems are undergirded by it, some more explicitly than others.” As he continued to write and teach, Aubert assumed administrative positions at Wayne State. In 1988 he accepted the post of interim director of the Center for Black Studies. During that same year, Aubert received the Callaloo Award for his contribution to Afro-American cultural expression. After two years as interim director, Aubert stepped down and accepted a new position as interim chair of the department of Africana Studies. He finally retired from Wayne State in 1993 after a total of 33 years teaching.
Aubert may have retired from teaching in 1993, but he still continued to write poetry. A fourth book, If Winter Come: Collected Poems 1967–1992, was published in 1994. It was quickly followed by a fifth book, Harlem Wrestler and Other Poems in 1995. In 1999 and in response to a request from Ronald Dorris, Aubert began donating his collected books and periodicals to the Xavier University Library. His donated books totaled more than 2500 volumes, many of them very rare and quite expensive. He also donated copies of Obsidian, as well as many of his personal papers. In acknowledgement of his gift, Aubert was the inaugural recipient of the Xavier Activist for the Humanities Award in 2001. In a July 2003 interview with Contemporary Black Biography, Aubert mentioned that he has continued to write poetry, “as the spirit moves me,” but admitted that “the spirit has been somewhat sluggish,” and so he currently has no plans to submit poems for future publication.
During his distinguished career, Aubert assumed many roles. In addition to being an award-winning poet, he was also a successful university professor and administrator. Over a period of many years, he gave countless poetry readings, and in addition to the many poems published in his own books, Aubert published many poems in a wide variety of publications, from anthologies to magazines to professional journals. In his 2001 interview with Dorris of Xavier Review, Aubert offered some advice to young writers: “Read as many of the poets as you can, from good to great, enjoy them while learning what it is that they do that makes them what they are, then adapt that to your own, no doubt very different circumstances.”
“Nat Turner in the Clearing,” Motive, January 1967.
(Contributor) J.W. Corrington and Miller Williams, editors. Southern Writing in the Sixties: Poetry, Louisiana State University Press, 1967.
Against The Blues, Broadside, 1972.
(Contributor) Williams, Miller. Contemporary Poetry in America, Random House, 1973.
Feeling Through, Ithaca House, 1976.
(Contributor) Adoff, Arnold. Celebrations: An Anthology of Black Poetry, Follett, 1977.
(Contributor) Owen, Guy. Contemporary Southern Poetry, LSU Press, 1978.
(Contributor) Field, Edward. A Geography of Poets, Bantam, 1979.
South Louisiana: New and Selected Poems, Lunchroom Press, 1985.
If Winter Come: Collected Poems 1967–1992, Carnegie Mellon UP, 1994.
Harlem Wrestler and Other Poems Michigan State UP, 1995.
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 20, Gale, 1994, pp. 17–34.
Harris, Norman. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets Since 1955, Gale, 1985, pp. 32–36.
Black American Literature Forum, Volume 23, Number 3, Fall 1989, pp. 415–440.
Xavier Review, Volume 21, Number 2, 2001, pp. 9–21.
“AfAm Studies, Acquisitions,” Xavier University of Louisiana, www.xula.edu/african-american/acquisitions.html. (May 21, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an email interview with Alvin Aubert on July 17, 2003 and from a curriculum vitae provided by Alvin Aubert on May 31, 2003.
—Dr. Sheri Elaine Metzger
"Aubert, Alvin 1930–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/aubert-alvin-1930
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