’ An UPTOWN Continuing Literary Tradition (Harlem 1986 - 1996) by ’Marie Brown
(presented at the Second Symposium/Performance Monday December 11, 2006 7:00pm Museum of the City of New York)
TriHarLeninum 1976 -2006 chronicles the evolution of the Harlem community during these decades. The project includes four symposium/performances capturing the stories of a diverse panel of artists, scholars, historians, community activists, clergy, and others, as well as five performances of Craig S. Harris’ composition in cultural institutions and public parks throughout Harlem.
TriHarLeninum is the first commissioned work of the harlem is…MUSIC projects. harlem is…MUSIC, the newest component of the Community Works’ harlem is…MUSIC series, celebrates the history and legacy of the music in Harlem through exhibitions and pubic programs.
A musical tribute to the history of Harlem, this performance and symposium highlights TriHarLenium, a musical composition capturing the sounds of Harlem over three decades by Craig S. Harris, followed by a panel discussion focusing on Harlem from 1986-1996, moderated by Professor David Lionel Smith of Williams College, with Professor Bob O’Meally, Chair, Columbia University Center for Jazz Studies, music journalist Greg Tate, literary agent Marie Brown, Craig S. Harris, and others. Presented in collaboration with Community Works, as part of its Harlem is…Music public art and education program.
Thank you Bob, Voza [Voza Rivers Chairman ’Harlem Arts Alliance], Barbara and Craig for the opportunity to share with you some recollections of the my personal and public literary and publishing world between 1986 and 1996 and also I would like to thank ’Herb Boyd who promptly responded to my cry for help when I thought that I would not be able to recall anything. He immediately mentioned a few events and my memory switch was turned on!
That there is a strong literary legacy and publishing tradition in Harlem is hardly a revelation to readers of African American cultural history. From 1986-1996 , there is much literary, photographic and video documentation of the strong presence of writing and publishing originating and being marketed and promoted in Harlem from Morningside Heights to Sugar Hill and east to west —river to river.
I should also add that if I inadvertently omit any significant person, organization, institution it is simply a matter of allotted TIME and MEMORY—mostly due to the latter.
Rediscovering and documenting the richness of this literary tradition and its participants in our Harlem community is an obligation that we must meet because much of this documentation cannot be found elsewhere.
What has reinforced this belief is that over the past three years or so I have had the opportunity and privilege to assist our venerable journalism and black press pioneer, cultural activist and Harlem resident Evelyn Cunningham with organizing her papers, books and other memorabilia as well as witnessing a few of the scores of interviews that she has agreed to; documenting her life and work, spanning the past 91 years.
What has been of great interest to the interviewers who have included Dr. Camille Cosby’s National Visionary Leadership Project, Dr. Brenda Square of ’The Amistad Research Center at Tulane in New Orleans and as recent as last week Chicago based Historymakers archival project is that during the interviews there is much discussion devoted to Evelyn’s life in Harlem, where she moved with her family when she was a young child of elementary school age.
The conversations that I have observed on these occasions have reinforced and reminded me constantly of Harlem’s LIVING and continuing tradition of art in all categories and activism. In addition, my participation in this series has prompted me to research and revisit so many of my own experiences in Harlem., where I have lived since 1982.
From my early childhood I had had a close relationship with Harlem, as a result of our annual family visits throughout the late 1940’s and 50’s with my cousins Ralph and Connie Hawkins at their home on 152nd Street btw Amsterdam and St. Nicholas…two blocks from 154th Street where I now live and work. Later on in the 1960’s my running buddies and I thinking we were quite hip traveled from Philly on the weekends to hang out with them and later on our own.
During those visits I was shown and recognized the cultural gem that Harlem was then and remains to this day.
Fast forwarding to 1986, we had settled into life uptown after moving from the upper west side of Manhattan to 51 St. Nicholas Place.
Looking back, I now realize that this was the first manifestation of Marie’s uptown literary group home; an extension of what used to be on W. 83rd Street. In temporary residence at one time or one place or the other there would be a diverse group of visiting writers and artists’ that included Verta Mae Grosvenor, David Jackson, ’Robert Fleming, Nettie Jones, Waymon Reed and of course Ken Brown and others.
Very often there would be informal gatherings of a diverse group of folks who just sort of "dropped by".southern style. I remember a few years of Open Houses on New Years Day when I had only mentioned a day or so beforehand to David Jackson our unofficial cultural envoy that it would be nice if a few people stopped by on the first and by the end of the evening more than 100 people had done exactly that. David was quite a promoter, writer, bibliophile, critic and cultural activist . He and I produced the Louis Michaux Book Fair at the Museum when it was located at 125th and 5th Avenue.
In 1984, I had been convinced (quite reluctantly) by publishing friends who were still employed at downtown publishing houses to become a literary agent. A the time I was working at Endicott Booksellers on the upper Westside I really had wanted to get back into the book publishing industry as an editor but that was not happening . So agenting it would be.
Former Doubleday editor, Lawrence Jordan had already established his literary agency uptown.
During those very early years of MBA [Marie Brown Associates] in order to keep the lights on we worked on many publishing related projects including writing and packaging a series of self help books on a range of topics for Longmeadow Press in Connecticut where Harlem Resident ’Adrienne Ingrum was Publisher and Vice president. We also produced the Minority Suppliers Development Council Newspaper as well as child rearing advertorial supplements for The New York Times. These supplements, titled All About Children, were conceptualized and nurtured by Harlem Resident and New York Times’s advertising executive at the time Margaret Porter Troupe. The agency also specialized in marketing and promoting African American books for publishers. Among the projects that our Harlem based operation worked on were I Dream A World, the launching of the One World Imprint at Ballantine Books and packaging and production of a book authored by Michael Cottman and Deborah Willis commemorating the Million Man March and edited by Adrienne who by then was a VP at Crown Publishers.
Although these were our "bread and butter" projects the agency’s main concerns focused on the day to day business of agenting and book publishing using our contacts and resources to help authors to get published as well as supporting the programs and various efforts by individuals and organizations to continue the promotion of our African American literary tradition in the city at large but especially in our community.
With the exception of such journalists such as C. Gerald Fraser at the New York Times the mainstream media and to a great extent the publishing and literary media except Publishers Weekly either ignored or paid little attention to what was happening uptown in publishing and the literary arts
Even though many authors participating in programs, readings, and book signings were attracting strong and supportive audiences.
My involvement in the world of book publishing was basically an uptown/downtown kind of experience where too many Black writers were really not being recognized or published in representative numbers .
Enter ’Glenn Thompson, who had returned from England where he had lived as an Ex-Patriate for many years and there he had established Writers and Readers Publishing Company. When returning to his hometown of NYC in the1980’s he recognized the need for an African American Publisher that could successfully publish a range of Black authors that would include
poets, novelists, scholars, historians, cultural activists, children’s authors and authors who dealt with self- empowerment issues.
Under the banner of Writers and Readers, Glenn launched Harlem River Press and Black Butterfly Books for Children and continued with his pioneering graphics books that were known in the trade as the BEGINNERS SERIES. Each of these imprints during their existence produced bestselling and award winning books. Writers and Readers’ first New York office was located at 125th and Fifth on the NW corner and Glenn was a resident of Harlem and London up to the time of his death in 2001.
Throughout this period African American readers continued to support and appreciate our finest writers and scholars, which was evidenced by the continuing number of readings, book signings and cultural events that were very well attended and widely featured in the black press and on black radio.
The Schomburg Center was and remains Harlem’s principle venue for programs offering the works of writers across the Diaspora as well as preservation, discussion, and documentation of their works.
Their calendar in the early 90’s included the following videoed and filmed programs :The Afrikan Poetry Theatre’s tribute to Harlem’s own ’Sonia Sanchez in 1992 with Amina and Amiri Baraka, ’Haki Madhubuti and John Watusi Branch.
At the Schomburg a couple of years later Raymond Patterson hosted a Poetry series that featured the young poets Tony Medina, Tracie Morris, Willie Perdomo and Kevin Powell each of whom would be contributors to the anthology edited by Powell and Ras Baraka and published by Glenn Thompson’s Harlem River Press and represented by Marie Brown Associates.
Another program in 1994 illuminated Global Black Voices: Multiculturism in the Black World featuring Maryse Conde, Manthia Diawara, Sindiwe Magona, Walter Moseley and Elizabeth Nunez and in the same year film and video screenings about the lives and works of James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Ralph Ellison among others.
While many of the LANGSTON HUGHES FESTIVAL programs took place at City College’s Aaron Davis Hall; the Schomburg Center was one of the venues for select programs. The Langston Hughes Festival was launched by Professor Raymond Patterson at City College
In 1986, Raymond Patterson received the Langston Hughes Award, followed in subsequent years by Dennis Brutus, Alice Walker, Amiri Baraka, Alice Childress, ’Maya Angelou, August Wilson, Chinua Achebe, Ernest J. Gaines in 1994, followed by Ishmael Reed in 1995 and Nikki Giovanni in 1996.
During the Langston Hughes Festival in 1992 at the Schomburg a Literary Forum featured Camille Yarborough, Readings from Langston Hughes’ work by Vinie Burrows and a discussion of the work of Dr. Ben [Yosef A.A. ben-Jochannan] and Dr. John Henrik Clarke. On another occasion Danny Glover read Langston Hughes at the Festival.
Other literary events including readings, book signings and poetry slams were taking place at The Studio Museum, Branch Libraries, The Apollo, boutiques and churches and other venues.
The Studio Museum in Harlem continued as it had since the very early 70’s to present programs featuring the work of new, emerging and established Black artists and authors, very often celebrating and/or selling the published work of novelists, children’s book authors, Visual arts scholars and cultural advocates including Deborah Willis, David Driskell and Richard Powell as well as the museum’s many exhibition catalogues.
One of the most unique literary events taking place in Harlem (and Brooklyn) was Lana Turner’s Literary Society’s Read-Ins where the importance of reading and honoring the continuing tradition of African American Writers was uniquely celebrated. At these annual events authors were invited to read from their works however before the readings began the audience would spend an hour reading silently from books that they had bought with them to the event.
Readings and writer supportive programs were taking place in every neighborhood in Harlem In East Harlem in the early 90’s, poet ’Willie Perdomo was honoring the tradition of ’Piri Thomas, author of Down These Mean Streets and Felipe Luciano of The Last Poets.
Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez among others participated in many programs sponsored by the NYPL branch libraries. El Museo del Barrio, and the literacy center, the Friendly Place.
And then there were the organizations, workshops and salons that supported, nurtured and encouraged writers to "keep the faith" and to pursue their craft.
There was no way that any of us who were present on this scene could not witness the impact of the Harlem Writers Guild and the ascendancy of members such as Rosa Guy, Grace Edwards, ’John Henrik Clarke, ’Keith Gilyard, William Banks and others.
Out of the Harlem Writers Guild emerged The New Renaissance writers organization that met at the Schomburg and included among their members Arthur Flowers, Malaika Adero, Joyce Dukes, Brenda Conner Bey, B. J. Ashanti, Doris Jean Austin, Terri McMillan and others.
The workshops and salons, the most notable being those that took place at Quincy and Margaret’s and others hosted by Lana and the Literary Society continue to this day to provide the positive, informative personal contact that so many readers and authors desire.
Just this brief survey of what was ACTUALLY happening in Harlem but not reported widely is VERY strong evidence of the strength, presence and resilience of the African American Literary tradition and continuing presence in Harlem from 1986 through 1996.
Copyright © 2006 Marie Brown
Marie Brown Photo Courtesy of Mondella Jones