Charles Martin is a photographer, filmmaker, writer, and past chair of Comparative Literature at Queens College-City University of New York. His preface introduces the 1988 edition of the novel Úrsula, by Maria Firmina dos Reis, an Afro-Brazilian woman once overlooked but now celebrated as ground-breaking and importantly innovative. Martin’s photography is included in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and his solo exhibitions include Museu Histórico e Artístico do Maranhão (São Luís do Maranhão, Brazil), the Musée Public National d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (Algiers, Algeria), Musée de la Halle St. Pierre (Paris), Alice Austen House Museum (Staten Island, NY), June Kelly Gallery (NY), and the Yale Afro-American Cultural Center. A Google search of “Umaxxi” will take you to his sites of photography and video.
In this Q&A he shares fond memories of his time on campus and the impact of influential members of the Yale community.
My father, a graduate of Lincoln University, an Historically Black College in Oxford, Pennsylvania, whose graduates include Langston Hughes, was fond of saying, “If not Lincoln, then Yale is ok.”
What is your most enduring memory of your time at Yale?
The 1972 concert at Woolsey Hall of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which I saw as an undergraduate, was an event memorable not only for the amazing array of musicians onstage—including Charles Mingus—but also for the quick flight of most of them, mid-song, because of a bomb scare. After a general evacuation and a delay, the concert did go on.
As a graduate student, an enduring memory is of Dona Yolanda Umburanas-O'Donnell, the demanding teacher whose introductory Portuguese class met five days a week. Thanks to her, at the end of the year when I made my first trip to Brazil, I could speak the language well enough to be a delegate to a cultural congress in São Paulo, organized by Abdias Nascimento, Afro-Brazilian politician, painter, actor and activist.
If you could relive your time at Yale, what would you do differently?
It would have been good to have taken some business courses to have begun to understand something about economics.