A Report by Kalamu ya Salaam on:
Chicago State University's Gwendolyn
Brooks Writers� Conference
Wednesday, October 24 - Saturday, October 27, 2001
The Gwendolyn Brooks Center / Douglas Library
Chicago State University
9501 South King Drive
Chicago, IL 60628-1598
chicago, wed. 24 oct. 2001--coach bolden, who picked nia and i up at midway airport, asked how was the flight. i said, i don't know, i was sleeping. he laughed and said, i guess that means it was good.
|The Gwendolyn Brooks
Center, located in the Douglas Library of Chicago State University (CSU),
is a literary and cultural center invested in disseminating information
about the life, works, and career of Gwendolyn Brooks, poet laureate of
Illinois and Distinguished Professor of Literature at CSU. The goal of the
Brooks Center is to strengthen the study of literature, encourage the
pursuit of creative writing and critical analysis, and promote the study
of Black writers to a national community. The Center can be defined by its
respect for writers of African descent who have made significant literary
contributions and who have paved the way for new generations of writers by
creating a tradition of literary excellence.
In honor of the national recognition and respect accorded Ms. Brooks and the literary excellence of Black writers around the world who have participated in the annual Gwendolyn Brooks Writers' Conference, the Center recently created the National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. During the first annual induction ceremony, October 1998, thirty-nine writers were inducted into the Hall of Fame by its founders, Haki R. Madhubuti, CSU professor of English and publisher of the Chicago-based Third World Press; Bennett Johnson, publisher of the Evanston, IL based Path Press ; and Dr. B. J Bolden, associate professor of English at CSU and director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center. A special medallion, designed by CSU professor of art Ausbra Ford, commemorated the occasion and was conferred upon each inductee.
The Brooks Center's annual events include the October Writers' Conference and Literary Hall of Fame induction Ceremony on CSU's campus, in addition to year-long activities, like the annual Black History Month Film-Festival, Women's History Month lectures and programs, poetry competitions, and poetry readings. The Center also publishes Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas and conducts annual literary competitions in the areas of poetry, short fiction, drama, and critical theory.
Both the Gwendolyn Brooks Center and the National Literary Hall of Fame are located in the Douglas Library, telephone number (773) 995-4440.
i had about 1.5 hours of sleep at home before getting up at 4:30am to make a 6:50 flight, etc. etc. you know the new routine you have to go through with the heightened security measures. i felt no anxiety about flying, i believe i was sleep before the plane took off.
we arrived in chi around 11am. coach took us straight to the congress hotel downtown in the loop. i had a 1pm opening keynote address to make. at that point my only concern was whether the hotel room would be ready. it was, no problem and we were able to check in, jump on the dan ryan and make it out to chicago state university on the southside with plenty of time left over to relax and prepare.
when we arrived nora brooks blakely (the daughter of gwen brooks) was up with a performance by her chocolate chip theatre company. they were entertaining a group of young folk who looked to be high schoolers who seemed to all be enjoying the program.
this year's program which had keynote presentations scheduled by jayne cortez, julie dash, michael eric dyson, mari evans, haile gerima, bell hooks, clarence major, walter mosley, sonia sanchez, ntozake shange and yours truly was arguably the strongest line up this 11-year-old writers conference has ever had
haki met us. we hugged and got our marching orders. at 1pm i opened with a poem i had written for gwen brooks 80th birthday celebration that featured 80 poets. and then i made a few remarks about the neo-griot, writing with text, sound and light concept. and then i screened "when love hurts," a thirty minute video i wrote, directed and edited working with the newbian crew (a trio of 18-year-old black women, who had just graduated from high school--two are now at howard and the other is at clark). the video was well received and during the comments immediately afterwards i stressed that through using digital technology we could indeed tell our own stories on a par with tv professionals as for as how the movie looked and sounded.
content wise, it is up to us to infuse the work we do with content quality and craft. i must have struck a responsive chord in the small audience because before i knew it i had sold out of all the "360 degrees-a revolution of black poets" i had lugged up from new orleans.
360 was a co-production of runagate multimedia (our publishing arm in new orleans) and blackwords, headed up by kwame alexander, who co-edited the book with me. the hardback edition of 360 had been recently picked as a black expressions book club selection, so that was the latest work that was slinging.
the quick sale of 10 or so books was noteworthy because at that point, other than the high schoolers, there were only maybe 15 or 20 folk in the audience.
this year's program which had keynote presentations scheduled by jayne cortez, julie dash, michael eric dyson, mari evans, haile gerima, bell hooks, clarence major, walter mosley, sonia sanchez, ntozake shange and yours truly was arguably the strongest line up this 11-year-old writers conference has ever had. however, the turnout did not reflect that. if nothing else, csu professors should have had students in attendance.
at a later session, someone sitting behind us remarked that there was not enough publicity on the event. but i don't think that was the reason.
when i first arrived and sat briefly with haki, he said that the events of 9-11 had significantly cut into their program. not only were pre-registrations and attendance way down, but a couple of folk would not be flying in, specifically jayne cortez and julie dash. additionally, sonia sanchez had broken her foot (send sister sonia some love, yall), and would also be unable to make it.
facing the adversity head on, at one point on friday, haki annouced that even in the face of all of those problems this was still the longest running, continuous annual black writers conference in the country, and they intended to keep it going.
and i say, right on/write on! this is my fourth or fifth conference and i have always enjoyed the comraderie and opportunities to hear a diversity of writers, both established and emerging, published and unpublished. it's just downright good to be on the scene in the midst of so many black writers.
following my presentation, there was a panel, media on a mission, featuring chicago-based communicators: cliff kelley, a radio personality who had previously served time in the middle east working in the state department; mary mitchell, a columnist for a chicago daily; hermene hartman, publisher of indigo, news magazine; and, salim muwakkil, who i know best as a columnist/editor with in these times, a progressive newspaper.
cliff kelley was funny and deadly serious at the same time. i could see how he could easily handle a major, drive time, talk radio show. his combination of knowledge and race-based assertiveness, mixed with an urbane wit and sophistication delivered in a soothing baritone that preached but did not screech, made for both insightful and enjoyable listening.
salim was everything i expected, which is to say, politically insightful and warmly serious. hermene hartman, like many alternative publishers was on a mission. during the question and answer portion she decried the non-traditional hip-hop journalists who couldn't spell and preferred to send her their articles as an email attachment (which she couldn't open). i smiled, i understood her concerns without sharing the particulars of her point of view. yes, writers should know how to write and spell in standard english, but there is nothing wrong with using non-standard english, if it is a choice rather than simply all one knows how to write. and as for using email to file articles, well, if she is not doing so, it simply means that she is probably spending limited resources on re-typing info--at one point she said she wants to get hard copy... oh, why even bother. some of us will not change with the times, and that's just the way it is.
for me the particular highlight of this panel was mary mitchell, who self-described herself as a twice-divocred, single mother of four children who had spent almost 20 years as a secretary before she got a break as an intern at a newspaper and eventually turned that into a position as a columnists on the op-ed page. she spoke about her working class, project roots, and how she was not the product of the civil rights movement and professional parents, as was the case with many of the other journalists she knew. and then she declaimed, with not a shred of shame in her game, that as far as she was concerned, her job was to tell stories about the black people she knew and loved. period. and that didn't include thugs and drug dealers. i was smiling up a storm listening to this sister.
we had a short dinner break and then came the first poetry reading featuring samiya bashir, dr. kelly norman ellis, quraysh ali lansana, tony medina, gwedolyn mitchell and saul williams, hosted by nora brooks blakely. amazingly, everybody stayed on time, and if for no other reason, they all deserve major props for respecting the program guidelines.
of course, responding to poetry always has a strong personal-taste aspect
that has nothing to do with the quality of any given poet. i appreciated all of
the poets. there were three highlights for me. one was a name-calling,
ass-kicking poem about the bush/scrub family that dr. ellis delivered so softly,
sort of light she had a silencer on a .45-magnum and was a professional hitter
smoking them right between their beady eyes. the audience was howling in delight
as she fired off her assault. another highlight was tony medina being tony
medina, which is to say, loud, brash, sarcastic and politically sharp all at the
same time. my man read a series of letters to santa claus from young people in
the city who had written to santa before and not received a reply. while a
number of them were predictably antagonistic to a "fat, white man" a
couple of the letters were so poignant that a serious silence descended on the
audience that had just seconds before by holding their sides as they cracked up
with laughter. the
final highlight, was the last to read, saul williams.
i have known saul since the early 90s when he was at morehouse and my daughter, kiini, was at spelman and they both were members of a collective called red clay. over the years saul and i and appeared together on a number of programs and it is always insightful to see this preacher's son, who majored in philosophy (if i'm not mistaken), and then gone on to grad school in acting at nyu, before becoming a socalled overnight success as a performance poet and actor.
listening to saul was like checking out anthony braxton, a fiercely iconoclastic new music (some would say avant garde) saxophonist and composer who specializes in way out shit. saul jumped up and just started blowing, starting off with quoting a bob kaufman poem (i don't think most of the audience members were aware saul was quoting bob, but it was beautifully done). and then he just kept up this amazing free association solo full of incredible imagery and nuggets of insight that were like lightening flashes in a hurricane of words. he then pulled out a hand crafted journal which had a cloth and shell cover and pages of hand made paper, thick with wood specks pressed into it. and proceeded to read a piece about meeting hype williams in the atlanta airport and sharing a flight back to l.a. saul contrasted himself to hype--hype was flying first class, saul was back in seat 40-something next to the toilet. it was a wonderful piece of personal journalism that took no prisoners--afterwards saul said it was to be published with only a few lines edited out because he didn't want people to think he was being mean-spirited and/or self-righteous about hype, which is not how it came off as he read the piece, but which might easily be the impression if you didn't hear saul's voice inflections and timbres. saul closed with a declaration about what he is trying to do with his work. again it was fire and ice in it's volatility--at one point he paused to pick up a little piece of paper and said he had to read a certain section because he didn't remember it all. again, afterwards, when we talked, i asked him had he really forgotten the words or was that part of the presentation. he said, no, he couldn't remember all of it, because it was really a song, and without some of the music cues... i nodded, ok, i got you, i fully understand.
saul is really into his music at this point, trying to get proficient with producing his beats and his music, as well as the lyrics. proud of the fact that he is figuring out how to get a live sound, i.e. the sound of instruments, even when he's using a roland or other piece of electronic equipment. we rapped about a number of issues on the long ride back to the hotel.
i asked, what was "it" for him: acting, writing, music. and he said, the music. yeah, the music. which is as good a time to announce that his long awaited cd, amethyst rock star, is finally out in the states--it's been out for about 6 months in europe. and that is what saul is pushing, and pushing hard at the moment.
i know a lot of young folks are mad crazy about saul and a lot of older folks here him and go "huh" -- but believe me, the young man is authentic in that he works at what he does, reads voraciously to keep up with what's new and stay up on what blew before he came on the scene, he has studied more stuff than his average critic, and has made a decision to roam the cosmos. he is a true grandchild of sun ra. that's right, sun ra. and if you don't know, you better ask somebody--whether you dig him or not, saul williams is happening.
about 8:30 the madness started--kalamu what are you talking about? well, you see what had happened waz, an "open mic" poetry comnpetition was held and i was asked to be a judge along with samiya, tony and gwen mitchell. there was the usual 3-minute time limit plus a rule against profanity, the "n" word and the "b" word. and they had approximately sixty--did you say sixty? i said sixy! poets presenting their work.
i'm not going to even try to describe it. if you have been to an open mic, you know what it was like, how uneven it was, how some poets were both amazing and awful within the same 3-minute time limit, how some ran way too long (everybody that went over 3-minutes was automatically eliminated), how we had a hard time agreeing on the winner, how unfair it is to the poets because there is no way they are going to get any kind of indepth assessment of their work, and how unfair it is to the judges to try and pick three winners out of sixty poets back to back to back to back to back...
that's how the first night ended... more in a minute, i got to run to the hall of fame induction program. i'm being induced in, so i have to attend... signing off from chi... oh, by the way, i'm in the csu computer lab, and the internet connection is slooooooowwwwwwww, too slow to try and post the regular e-drum mailings, but at least here is a short report and i will try to get another report posted before i leave... stay tuned.
part #2 of 3
|I get more and more impressed with walter mosley every time I hear him. he�s no revolutionary, and not trying or pretending to be, but what he is is an exceptionally good writer who takes writing seriously.|
thursday, 25 oct.�when we went to sleep on wednesday night it was cool, verging on cold, when we got up thursday morning, hawkins was talkin�, the all mighty hawk, don�t you know who I am, where the hell your hat at, let me snatch it off your head. the hawk off the lake, an air-knife that will cut tears down your cheek, it was getting so cold i saw an ice cube desparately looking to thaw out� meanwhile, the first panel was samiya bashir, quraysh ali lansana and tony medina adressing �the black arts movement and the culture we inherit.� they mostly talked about the forthcoming anthology �role call,� which they jointly edited. role call is described as a generational anthology of political and socially relevant writing. this was sort of like rounding up the usual suspects�I�m waiting to see the anthology.
next was lunch and then haki spoke in place of sonia sanchez who was missing in action�she had broken her foot. haki�s presentation was good, especially considering he was a last minute fill-in, but there was no new ground broken. then came �the cultural landscape of fiction� panel, which I really, really wanted to hear. walter mosley, clarence major, chris benson, jiton davidson and michael samanga.
I get more and more impressed with walter mosley every time I hear him. he�s no revolutionary, and not trying or pretending to be, but what he is is an exceptionally good writer who takes writing seriously. he is also both honest and humble, honest in that he says what he really thinks (I should add that he is a diplomatic genius, has the ability to say that the derrier on your maternal side of the family is probably south africanesque, rather than yo mama got a fat ass, and make it sound both like a compliment and sound like he admires steatopygia even when it is a bit excessive as is the case with some members of your immediate family), and humble in that he never takes himself too seriously. plus, he is funny as hell, and his sense of humor takes the edge off of what otherwise might be fighting words.
clarence major has written a lot, is a major experimenter, especially with fiction, but he is not great at speaking off the cuff. chris benson, who has a new novel out with third world press, is somebody I would keep at arm�s length if he was an adversary, you got to watch this brother, there is steel in his eye, I mean not that he is mean, but rather he is emotionally hard, does what he got to do, there is an authority in his handshake that says don�t make him mad, he has the quiet voice of authority and somehow, without saying much, he makes it clear he is not for no bullshit. I have not read his book yet, but I intend to. jiton davidson, the sista out of dc who does fyah.com was up next. rather than speak off the cuff from the table, as everyone else had done, she went to the podium and read from prepared notes. she covered a lot of ground very, very quickly and in some cases made broad general statements that almost begged for further development before one could agree or disagree, but unfortunately for her, time was limited. but I was glad to see that she had taken her presentation seriously. last up was michael samanga, a former congress of afrikan people cadre member. I�ve known him from back in the day, and was with him in otisville for the black writer�s retreat this past summer. michael was on the case. hard hitting and putting forth a cutting edge political line�he talked about using fiction to �discover, determine and assert who we are, where we are� and broke that down in terms of each component. really appreciated him stepping up to the plate.
I�ve read his novel, in the shadow of the sun, and it�s clear that he is not talking about some by the numbers propaganda, but rather a real grappling with the conventions of fiction to figure out a way to tell our story. if you ever get a chance to hear michael samanga, please go there.
next up was supposed to be a poetry workshop with sonia sanchez and saul williams. tony medina filled in for sonia. this workshop was both disappointing and enjoyable. it was disappointing in that not one lick of poetry workshopping went down, no real discussion of poetic fundamentals, no investigations of alternative or experimental poetic techniques, no real discussion of black poetry contextually or historically. nada. nothing. but the workshop was enjoyable in that both saul and tony talked at length about how they got into literature, tracing their childhoods, and speaking specifically about their love affair with literature, and all of that was thoroughly enjoyable. saul dug into his theatre background and explained connecting with emotions regardless of the meaning of the words. talked about coming from the gut, described an exercise he had done in drama grad school where they had to talk in gibberish, just use made up sounds but had he and another person were supposed to be two friends meeting up after a long period without seeing each other, and saul was to convey the momentous changes that had gone on in his life since he and the friend and last been together, in this case one of the changes was a painful breakup with a girlfriend, and just in talking about what he had done, you could see him going there, and getting to the feelings, the emotions, and that made it clear why people respond so strongly to his poetry performances even though nine times out of ten, nobody knows what the fuck saul is talking about.
the workshop ended with the audience, which was primarily young high school students from two chicago area high schools plus the contingent from little rock, invited to come up to the mike and share what they wrote in response to the question of why do you write. there were a number of moving replies.
and then we broke for dinner. I went to the computer center on the first floor of the library and sent out the first report. it was still too slow to post e-drum from there, but c�est la vie.
afterwards was supposed to be julie dash and halie gerima, but ms. dash was mia (missing in action). haki called me up since I had presented a video earlier and since I have a long relationship with haile. haile gerima was outstanding in dealing with the question of using art to reflect and project our humanity, and talked about the complexity of that task. haile is ethiopian, and he also talked about his own experiences coming to america, contrasting and comparing himself with the african american experience. it was fascinating. because I have known him for many, many years and have spent time with him both in the states and abroad, and have been priviliged to see rushes off his movies as he worked on them, especially sankofa, and have done numerous interviews with him, I had some leading quesitons I knew to ask him. as is his wont, he would take my question, say yes you are right about that, or, yes, you said all that needs be said about that, but here is something else to think about, and take it out from there. everybody in the audience was smiling and sighing.
afterwards, when we went back to the hotel, nia, haile and I decided to get a late bite. went down to a nearby restaurant, benigan�s I believe it was. had a nice meal. midway throught he meal, a group of six young black men came in, sat at a nearby table and proceeded to hold court. they were not loud, loud, but you could hear every word they had to say to each other. what was remarkable is that they could not go for more than ten minutes without one talking about the other or talking about someone in another person�s family, a couple of times one or the other of them had to intervene and say, let it go, it�s over, etc. they talked about each other�s wives and girlfriends, acquaintances, and it was an abject lesson in self loathing. I had peeped that their opening drink orders had been cognac, and after listening to about five minutes of their self-deprecating banter, I surmised that they were all college educated. when we left, haile spoke softly to them, and they responded that they were all professionals, and that this was like a boy�s night out, and that they didn�t talk like this in front of their families, and� it was a sad, sad sight.
their being loud did not bother me. their cursing didn�t really upset me. but their clear lack of self-respect and respect for each other was what hurt. essentially, no matter how well educated, there is a profound sense of self-loathing among far too many of us today, a self loathing that is masked in humor and upscale materialism, but a self-loathing that is totally destructive, a self-loathing that we who are writers obviously need to address.
at one point in the conference, the question of the �n� word was raised� I don�t really feel like talking about it. all I know is that we fought this battle in the sixties and by the mid-70s most of us were sure that we had forever licked that, but now it�s back more vicious and virulent than ever, now it�s masked as a socalled term of endearment. bullshit. there is nothing endearing about depravity. we walked the four cold blocks back to the hotel, each of the three of us silently ruminating and shaking our heads�my people, my people�
part #3 of 3
friday, 26 october--let me start off by correcting myself. i didn't send out the first report from chi on thursday, actually it was friday. thursday was spent knocking down emails and finding out how slow the csu computer lab internet was.
friday morning the conference opened on a telling note. there was supposed to be a "welcome, entrance of elders, and libation ceremony" and i remember this part of the program from year before last. but this year there was no entrance of elders. useni eugene perkins did the libation.
i don't know the specifics of the situation at csu, but i do know the vibes i got. there is some distance between the community and csu. this notion of �elders,� which nationwide is very, very popular as a theory, but woefully underdeveloped as a practice, points to the alienation that exists between those of us who are "academically accredited" intellectuals and those who are community-based activists, and, argurably, no where in the usa is community-based black activism as strong as chicago.
additionally, csu has a new mfa program in creative writing--a program that haki notes is the first such at a predominately black institution (this notion of csu as a predominately black institution is really an ad hoc result of northern residential segregation, the school is located on the south side of chicago where there are probably at least a million black folk. the school student body is said to be over 95% black. but the school is a state institution that happens to be black in student population and happens to be located in a black area of chicago, but is not black as a mandate of its mission and existence. southern university and howard university, to take two quick examples, are government institutions. southern is a louisiana state school and howard a federally funded institution, both were built with a mission to serve black folk. since the civil rights era, that mission has not changed but the legal underpinnings have, thus, technically they are no longer mandated to serve black and only black students. etc. well, i don�t think csu ever was mandated to serve black students per se, even though, when it was built on the south side, everybody recognized that is what it would de facto be doing. so while i don't think it makes much sense to deny csu it's status as a black school based on some historic differences between csu and historically black colleges and universities, it is important to realize that we can't just lump all this stuff under the rubric of blackness and think we have actually analyzed or explained the reality.).
anyway, back to the mfa program; you need phd�s to make those kind of programs work at the academic level. and so there is an emphasis on academic accreditation that has unavoidably become part and parcel of the day to day work at csu. the rub however is that this same unavoidable (and undeniably important) emphasis on academic credentials distances the program from those who function in the community without such credentials, i.e. the socalled "elders."
to be clear, i am not saying that haki or dr. b. j. bolden, who directs the gwen brooks center, are consciously alienating anyone. what i am saying is that the program as an academic program, regardless of who is in charge, as long as it emphasizes academic credentials will inevitably distance itself from those who function without those same credentials unless a consistent, conscious and concrete program is put in place to ensure an embracing of the uncredentialed. otherwise what you will get is an "entrance of elders" and not have no elders entering.
this issue is not unique to csu/the gwen brooks center. this alienation of the academic based-credentialed folk from the community based-non credentialed folk is a symptom of what is going on throughout black america as a result of a whole generation of black folk moving into and through higher education. moreover, a further twist on that distancing is that for the most part the new phd�s from/in the black community are females, females who have few if any male peers. so there is a gender dimension to this riff. it was right there in our faces at the conference. many of the panels were chaired or moderated by phd�s, checking back over the program there was not one--hear me now, not one--black male phd chairing or moderating a panel.
this shit is deep. this is reflective of our changing social landscape. we ignore these demographic differences and distances at our peril. indeed, the differences themselves don't have to be debilitating or alienating if we face what is happening and make conscious adjustments, but we can not hope to move ahead by ignoring this reality, or by pretending we are not being affected. which brings us to the first panel of the day: "hip-hop culture: rap and its emerging scholarship," which was moderated by dr. melissa stevenson and featured bakari kitwana and dr. michael eric dyson.
bakari kitwana, the author of "the rap on gangsta rap" was also one of two editors who worked on my book, "what is life?". i like bakari and although we sometimes end up disagreeing as much as we agree in our analysis of rap from a political and social perspective, this day started off auspicisiously. in the rental car he was driving, bakari gave nia and i a lift from the hotel downtown in the loop to csu on the southside. on the way over we talked and exchanged ideas. i stated that the existence of white rappers was inevitable, especially now that there was so much money in the commercialization of rap. bakari told me to check out bubba sparks.
bakari has a new book on the rap generation coming and at the end of the book he quotes me from an essay in what is life. i called for using music as an economic foundation for black development. we rode the expressway across the southside warmed by comradely conversation. things were going swimmingly.
|dyson followed with all the dynamism that one would expect from a preacher. brother man preached the gospel of rap. by that i mean he quoted biggie, tupac and jay-z with the same facility and familiarity that most ministers quote jesus, genesis and revelations|
bakari was the first to present on the panel, and basically he laid out the thesis of his book. he broke down the hip-hop generation as those born between 1955 (i believe that's the date he used, i could be wrong. i didn't take notes.) and 1975. but whether i have the right dates, the interesting thing was the three-part breakdown that defined what he called the bridge generation, those born just before hip hop hit. then there are those who grew up at the same time hip hop came along. and then there is the current generation who have no memory of music before hip hop. and he proceed to talk about the viewpoints of these three sectors vis-�-vis the music and the meanings of the music, and the commercialization of the music. it was an interesting analysis that raised a lot of questions.
dyson followed with all the dynamism that one would expect from a preacher. brother man preached the gospel of rap. by that i mean he quoted biggie, tupac and jay-z with the same facility and familiarity that most ministers quote jesus, genesis and revelations--and brotha dyson even had the nerve to have a bit of flow in his quotes. shucks, it was shouting time. i was just waiting for the organ music, or at least somebody to bust a beatbox background.
dyson approached a number of different subjects but essentially was suggesting the importance of taking rap seriously and, by implication, the importance of listening to and communicating with young folk rather than turning a deaf ear and only dictating to young people what they ought and ought not be doing.
for a minute dyson threatened to breakdown the fascination of thug life, but only for a minute. he talked about being an outsider, talked about bling bling, talked about a number of things but he did not connect it up with the historic "bad niggah" (e.g. mean-ole-stagolee). that dyson was even acknowledging the syndrome was a development, so while i certainly think there needed to be a deeper analysis, i was impressed that there was a beginning to (hopefully) be continued at another time...
dyson had to leave early to catch a plane, so he was not around for the followup question and answer but he made a strong, strong impression with his presentation. at this point there were somewhere near a hundred young people in the audience and they went into overdrive as dyson dropped science citing chapter and verse from a plethora of rap artists.
if would have been a very lively q&a dialogue with the audience had dyson been able to stay, but he had to jet, and so the questions from the audience to bakari slowed to a trickle. since we were in chi, i decided to ask bakari's opinion about a track on common's latest release, like water for chocolate. (common is chicago's best known rapper and is also broadly considered to be a conscious rap artist.) at this point, i thought i was lobbing bakari a softball. just wanted to know what he thought. i started my question referring to water for chocolate, and mentioning the song for assata that's on the cd, and said, you dig? what i wanted to know was... and bakari quietly said, he had not heard the common cd.
there are embarassing moments, and there are embarassing moments--i felt... well, i felt confused. bakari had not heard common's new release, which at this point is not new been out for over a year? i was flabergasted. just threw my hands up, said, well then i can't even ask the question, and turned away from the microphone and slowly crept back to my seat.
when bakari said he hadn't heard common, a collective gasp went up from the audience of young folk, a gasp of utter disappointment, and even disapproval. unspoken but certainly not unthought by many of us was the question: how could bakari make an insightful analysis of rap and the contemporary scene if he had not heard common? i had not intended to embarrass bakari, or to confront him. i merely was going to ask him his opinion of the pimp and whore track that featured m.c. lyte. what did he think common was trying to do with that track? this was a moment i wish had not happened.
bakari must have left shortly thereafter, because i never saw him again during the rest of the conference. part of me wanted to apologize for asking the question, and another part of me wondered how in the world could he not have heard common. and thus, dr. dyson steals the show even though i think dyson's analysis is not critical enough and not grounded in the real political economy of the music. but without a doubt, dyson was the one who came off as the authority and bakari, who was making a much deeper attempt at analysis, came off looking like an academic outsider who didn't know what he was talking about. except that is not the case. bakari knows a lot, a lot of the inside stuff, spent years working as an editor at the source. is a serious writer... damn, this was a hard conundrum i put myself in. i can't defend bakari's ignorance of common, but at the same time i want to embrace bakari.
and, i suppose on a visceral level, this is one of the delicate points of attempts at intergenerational d�tente which begin with the intention of embracement and too frequently end with the reality of rupture. when we are not seeing eye to eye, when we lack common ground, how do we come together? figuring out how to hold together what is falling apart is important to me. dyson is going to get his. he's got charisma, he's got a message that appeals to young and old. the dr. dyson's of our world are going to do alright. but it is the bakari's of the world about whom i am most concerned. most concerned.
then we broke for lunch...
mari evans opened up the afternoon session with a quietly insightful presentation. i especially like her emphasis on the voluntary nature of using literature to confront and critique contemporary society.
"a conversation with nikky finney and dr. kelly norman ellis" followed mari evans. this was one of the highlights of the conference. nikky spoke first. her presentation included reading a short piece about her grandmother. both the writing and delivery were riveting. nikky has two books, but is best known for the second one, "rice." she teaches in kentucky (works with a group of poets known as "affrilachian poets") and comes up out of south carolina. she's what is commonly called a geechee. what she also, and more importantly, is is an awesome poet in the southern womanist tradition first articulated by alice walker.
nikky�s emphasis is on family and she is a griot in the sense that narrative poems are the hand with which she fans. there is a hard-won, carefully cared for folksiness about her that is not artificial nor an affectation. she is what mississippi would called redboned, impressive in statue, and sports a fierce mane of henna-colored dreadlocks. plus, she looks you full in the face when you converse with her and talks plainly out the front part of her mouth--no coy sideways glances, no soft asides with a half smile and semi-seductive lowering of the eyes. you know you in the presence of 100% woman when you come up on nikky finney.
dr. kelly ellis had been a student of nikky's in kentucky. dr. ellis read a short poem or two and shared anecdotes that shored up the emphasis on familial relationships. then nikky came back up and called for a dialogue with the audience, asked people to share their insights and experiences. tony medina was the first to come up out of the audience and read a page from his children's book, "deshawn days," in which the ten-year-old protagonist talks about the death of his grandmother. and then with the beauty of a rose blossoming to fullness, one after another people strode to the mike to share their stories of grandparents and close relatives. and a number of people were so overcome with emotion they cried. literally cried. unashamedly. loudly. genuinely.
the emotional temperature in the room rose higher and higher. and it could have gone on for at least an hour more. this was one of those rare moments at a writer's conference. it was not about nikky or kelly rousing the audience to a standing ovation with the eloquence, brilliance and emotional intensity of their poetry reading. it was not about the buzz when new ideas are dropped and people eagerly gather these new ideas like nuggets of gold. it was not like jumping up and down, mad happy or excited because the poetry made you feel so good you couldn't sit still. naw. this was about open heart surgery. healing by reaching deep inside to reveal the inner self and also reveal that self's connections and indebtedness to close family members.
and then we broke for an hour or so before the reception and musical interlude featuring chris bell and 100% blues, which was scheduled to preceed the 4th annual induction ceremonies for the international literary hall of fame for writers of african descent. i spent the next two or three hours online (this was when i filed part 1 of 3), so i completely missed the reception and the music--the band was breaking down when i came in.
staff members sent those of us who were award recipients into a small room behind the stage. food was laid out: a large pan of curry rice with peas, a barbequed tofu dish in a smaller container, and a tray of shreaded carrots that had been seasoned to favor yams. the cuisine came from a southside black restaurant who had done an admirable job of providing tasty vital vittles for the visiting writers during the entire of the conference. soon it was time to make our grand entrance and ascend to the dias to receive our medallions.
i, along with walter mosley, haile gerima, ntozake shange, clarence major and a handful of others, was inducted into the hall of fame. my thank you speech was short and sweet. i said, asante sana, pamoja tutashinda, a luta continua-and i did not translate (thank you very much, together we shall win, the struggle continues). walter mosley gave the keynote address. he was relatively brief, but both funny and poignant in describing a short story he wrote after the 9-1-1 attack (he wrote the story after turning down a nytimes offer to do a short op-ed piece).
by then it was late and we returned to the hotel. some of the young people started talking about a party somewhere. i couldn�t really hear what they were saying cause nia and i were resolutely moving toward the elevator.
saturday, 27 october--the last day of the conference kicked off with "the dynamics of publishing" panel featuring dr. nelvia brady (self published author), dr. william e. cox (publisher of blacks in higher and education, and of black issues book review), and paul coates (publisher of black classic press). i've been in publishing since 1968, there was nothing new presented and i found most of the information to be either anecdotal in nature or rudimentary in details. however, as an introduction to publishing for those who don't know the field, this was obviously a worthwhile panel.
next up was "the black arts movement: poetry and the black aesthetic" featuring dr. bell hooks, ntozake shange and yours truly, moderated by useni perkins. useni kicked it off with a brief overview that included quotes from the likes of larry neal. ntozake followed with an autobiographical take on what it was like in the early seventies. i hooped and hollered a moment, stressing what i remembered as the aesthetics of the period, and also talked about the incredible diversity and debate that was happening during the 1965 to 1976 formal period of the black arts movement. following up on ntozake's comments, i made particular note of the debates about feminism in the black scholar. dr. bell hooks closed out the opening presentations with a defense of black art and black aesthetics. before we knew it, it was q&a time and then, bam, it was over.
one of the questions i fielded had to do with the nature of blackness and the production of culture. i took the hard line: i am not a racial essentialist (i repeated that about three or four times, just in case somebody didn't hear me). of course, back in the day, i advocated a version of racial essentialism. but now i join the enslaved african writer of the roman empire, terrence, who said that there is nothing human that is foreign to me, and by extension, there is nothing that i do as a human that necessarily has to be foreign to any other human on the planet.
we then went to lunch, sat with haile gerima who criticized me in a comradely way for glossing over the definition of aesthetics and for not dealing with the realities of the contemporary world, especially how the agents of racism we most often encounter today are not whites but rather blacks who think white and carry out the business and ways of white folks. i listened closely and in weighing what he said, felt that the differences on the aesthetic question was more a matter of semantics and a matter of my not going into detail rather than a major difference between our definitions and views of aesthetics. as for the issue of the realities of our time, he is correct. at least half of what i had to say was not germane to current conditions. even though my topic was the black arts movement, i could have done it in a less nostalgic and more comparative mode.
after a lunch break, there was a conversation between ntozake shange and clarence major. that panel could have been the bomb, but it was unstructured and the moderator did not push shange and major to talk specifically about their fiction work and views on craft, purpose and experiments in fiction.
next was a panel on the work of gwendolyn brooks featuring dr. d. h. melhem, dr. b. j. bolden, and dr. jacqueline bryant, moderated by quraysh ali lansana. i choose to scurry over to the computer lab during that period.
then came the featured poetry reading of the day (in order of appearance): afaa michael weaver, nikky finney, kalamu ya salaam, d. h. melhem (who subed for ntozake shange), and mari evans. the program started quietly with afaa. nikky followed reading new work from the manuscript of a forthcoming book. nikky inadvertently dampened the proceedings a bit by asking the audience to hold their applause until the end of her reading. i understand the desire to make sure that the audience doesn't miss subtleties and the desire to flow from one poem to another, but i think such a request also cools the audience's enthusiasm and, particularly with black audiences, discourages audience participation, i.e. call and response. the net result was service like an episcopal church, i.e. quiet, quiet, quiet.
then my loud ass jumped up. before doing the poetry, i took a moment to acknowledge gerima's criticisms and make a couple of quick adjustments. and then it was full steam ahead with the poetry.
i encouraged people to sing and shout along with me. we got rowdy. i started off with a sound piece, "words have meaning/but only in context," which uses call and response and is built on charlie parker riffs for the chorus, but new music (specifically oliver lake, pharoah, and plenty, plenty eric dolphy) for the solo sections. followed with "you send me," a poem printed in the new anthology "sons of lovers" edited by arthur amaker, wiatta freeman, charles peterson jr. and tony smith. i had promised arthur that i would read a selection from the book to help promote the book, which they were selling at one of the vendor tables. the poem uses the chorus of the sam cooke song. i had the young kids singing part of the chorus. we had a ball. then did "flying over america," which is in "bum rush the page, a def poetry jam,� an anthology co-edited by tony medina and louis reyes rivera. even though no copies were available for sale, i held up tony's copy. that poem used lionel hampton's "flying home" as the musical accompaniment. by then we were having a great time. i then did "there's no big accomplishment in acting white," which uses variations on bethoven's moonlight sonata. and ended with "lonely woman," a monologue in the voice of a female that uses ornette coleman's composition lonely woman.
i played air alto on "words have meaning," sang on both "you send me" and "flying over...," did air piano on "no big accomplishment," and revisited the air alto saxophone on "lonely woman." it was a strong reading. when i ended it took me three or four minutes to decompress, to come down off the high. i had gotten really wrapped up in lonely woman; my nose was running, my eyes watering, i felt a tremendous sadness... when you really get into the poetry you end up going there and when you go there you got to go all the way. you can't fake the funk.
melham had the unenviable task of following me. fortunately, she recognized the depth of the water, did two poems and passed the baton to mari evans who made the same request for the audience to hold their applause that nikky had made, and engendered the same dampening effect. additionally, mari is a quiet reader and her poems, often as not, are short lyrics rather than narratives, so there was often not a story line to follow but rather a moment, an emotion, a thought to be appreciated. non-narrative poetry requires the audience to work more than narrative and/or humorous poetry, and this was another hurdle.
after that session we broke for dinner and then came back for the closing keynote address by dr. bell hooks. dr. hooks is provacative, stimulating and challenging. she talked about mediocrity, about the emotional by-products of oppression and exploitation, about black salvation, black self love and self esteem. and that was the wrap up to the formal conference.
this was, in many ways, the most enjoyable of any of the gwen brooks black writers conferences i have attended. but as we stood awaiting the van to take us back to the hotel, i was to find out: it ain't over yet.
quraysh was throwing a reading/book party for the role call anthology even though it wasn't out yet. i was invited to attend, particularly since they would be pushing bum rush the page and i was in there. nia was tired and turned in, but i decided to hang for the duration, so we drove over to a newly opened, black owned joint called square one in the wicker park area of chicago. the hit was supposed to be at 11pm, but things were running late and took a minute to congeal. somewhere around quarter to midnight the basement was crowded with about forty some people in attendance. tony had about 20 contributor copies of bum rush the page. arthur had maybe 12 or so copies of sons of lovers on display. samiya bashir had a chapbook on hand and a sister i had met at the writers retreat in otisville had her women's anthology on display.
tyehimba jess, tara betts, dr. duriel harris (whom jess affectionately called dr. funk), plus a host of other young chicago poets were on the set in addition to toni asante lightfoot, jiton davidson, and the two greybeards of everett hoagland and kalamu ya salaam. it ended up being a really, really enjoyable set featuring readings from about 10 or 12 different poets, all of whom were included in bum rush the page. i dug it to the highest because it was a great opportunity to hear a wide range of up and coming poets. i liked jess and betts the best. it was around 3am by the time i got back to the hotel, fortunately it was also �fall behind time� (to turn the clocks back off daylight savings time), so i was able to get about three hours of sleep before jumping up to make the flight back to new orleans.
i like chicago. were it not for the cold, would be able to say i love it. have a lot of friends there and look forward to visiting whenever i can.
given the commitment of haki, dr. bolden and all the staff at the gwen brooks center, i see this conference getting better and better. as it is this is the premiere black writers conference in terms of consistency and longevity. it's also on the verge of outshining everything else in terms of substance. of course, there are areas for improvement, but there were moments--particularly the nikky finney/dr. kelly ellis session and the haile gerima session--of stunning greatness. indeed, i have always enjoyed attending these conferences, and this year moreso than ever.
a luta continua,
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