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No matter how painful it may be, we must look to our past to "move forward, with a strong, clear-eyed sense of self" and become whole, says author Paule Marshall.

"We must maintain a distance as wide as the Atlantic Ocean between ourselves and the destructive aspects of American society. We must maintain a sense of worth, rooted in our past, so the evil can't touch us," Marshall told an audience attending a Saturday symposium celebrating 200 years of African-American literature.Students and scholars from Nigeria, Trinidad, Jamaica and the United States gathered at the University of Utah to discuss contemporary African-American literature and to honor Olaudah Equiano, an 18th-century slave kidnapped at age 11 from Nigeria who wrote a seminal literary account of his life.

Equiano, in describing his African childhood, wrote that he "looked back with pleasure on the first scenes of life, though that pleasure has been for the most part mingled with sorrows."

His book gave the U. symposium its anchor and its title: "Looking Back With Pleasure: A Commemorative Celebration of `The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African.' "

Reading from her novel, "Praisesong for the Widow," Marshall told the story of Avey Johnson, a black, middle-aged, middle-class woman who has disavowed the Harlem of her childhood. While on a cruise to the Caribbean, Johnson senses her life beginning to unravel. Inspired by a troubling dream, she abandons her structured life and friends and follows an adventure that links her to the African culture she has long denied.

Her character's search for her past is discovered in song and dance.

The celebratory gestures of dancing hands and feet link American blacks to their culturally rich African heritage, Marshall said.

Describing the climactic moment when Marshall's Americanized widow, a "woman who wouldn't be caught dead without her gloves," embraces her past, Marshall writes:

As the widow dances, she begins a restoration of her psyche, the acceptance of her real self. She becomes "well-healed" through the common medium of dance, Marshall said.

Her novel has relevance for everyone. "It's a novel about choices," she said.

"We don't talk about the past. We always have a sense of lying about it, and therefore, lying about ourselves.

"Reaching to understand and accept our own histories - and the past of other cultures - enriches, enlarges our lives," she said.

The writings of Equiano inspired Marshall 20 years ago when she struggled to put experiences that she had "lined up in her head" on paper.

"The story of his life resonated in my mind," she said.

Equiano was a member of the Igbo tribe of eastern Nigeria. After being kidnapped, he spent 10 years as a slave in Barbados, the United States and England.

Through his shrewdness, he saved enough money to purchase his freedom at 21. After becoming a successful English businessman, he devoted his life to the abolition of slavery. At age 44, he wrote his harrowing story in "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself."

In another book, "Equiano's Travels," Equiano described his African culture, saying, "We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians and poets."

Honoring Equiano, contemporary black artist Raymond Lark has displayed his drawings and paintings in the Hansen Gallery downstairs at the University of Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter signed a proclamation praising Lark for his achievements as an American artist and scholar. Lark's exhibit continues at the museum through Sunday, Nov. 12.

Attending the U. conference, Lark said his realist art strives "to reveal love, humor, truth - along with somber concern for the psychological and intellectual characteristic of the environment in which I live."

Hands, feet and dance: The cultural themes that Marshall develops in print, Lark illustrates through art.

In a dramatic graphite drawing of an AIDS patient dying, a young black man (who became Lark's friend) is surrounded by a circle of hands.

Explaining his drawing, Lark said the hands symbolize the reaching for life. "He wanted to live," said Lark. The patient died before the drawing was completed.

Lark said he frequently exaggerates the size of hands in his art to stress their importance in work, play and worship.

When hands are extended high "praising the Lord," it manifests the continuation of a heritage rooted in Africa. The gestures American blacks may take for granted in their daily expressions go back to their proud African culture.