“Elizabeth Nunez, the conference director and the director of the Black Writers Institute at Medgar Evers, estimated that 1,200 people attended the conference, from as far away as Germany, Japan and Britain.” —New York Times April 3, 2000
Report from the Field
by Kalamu ya Salaam
April 4, 2000
medgar evers college--brooklyn. new york, just like i pictured. at la guardia airport there was supposed to be a man with a sign. he was supposed to be there waiting to pick me up. snafus happen. the airport is mad busy. there must be at least fifty people standing in line--i'm not exaggerating--waiting for cab service. cars are routinely backing up down a one way ramp to go in a different direction. the security doesn't care as long as the traffic keeps crawling. most of the drivers aggresively spurt forward into the smallest opening, hitting the accelarator and forcing the other car to hit their brakes. horns are blaring. even with the windows up, you can hear people shouting courteously at their opponent roadmate. after about 45 minutes of watching demolition derby without crashes, i head back inside to use the telephone. as soon as i hang up with the conference office, a gentleman with a west indian lilth comes up. he has a sign in his hand. my name is on it. he has on an attractive mudcloth jacket and explains to me that they sent him to kennedy and when he got to kennedy he found out that there are no usair flights coming into kennedy and that i'm at la guardia and he hopes i'm not too upset, sorry about that, etc. i just smile. all is well. i travel a lot and there is no problem--except we need to go back to kennedy to pick up someone else (whom it turns out arrived at 4:30 and is not there when we get to kennedy at 6:30; probably got tired of waiting and caught a cab, who knows). and besides when we finally get to medgar evers for the opening session, which was scheduled to begin at 6pm, turns out that i catch the very conclusion of all the preliminaries and the panel itself starts about ten minutes after i arrive and am seated next to kofi lamotey whom i know from back in the seventies from our work together with cibi. the council of independent black institutions was a federation of independent black schools, most of them elementary schools. since then kofi has set his sights on becoming a college president and is moving through the higher educational system as an administrator. he is principled and deeply committed to improving educational opportunities for black students. as i settle in max rodriguez of qbr-the black books review is recieving an award. kofi and i shake hands. welcome to new york.
the first panel is moderated by keith gilyard and features walter mosley, sonia sanchez and ishmael reed. keith gilyard starts with a very insightful summary of the development of the black writers conference going back to the original idea put together by john oliver killens. mosley read from a prepared statement--stressing the need for african americans to own, the need to support black publishing concerns. sanchez also read from a prepared text, but she skimmed through it and often made witty, insightful asides. i swear sonia is looking younger. regal. and absolutely at peace with herself without losing one iota of her fiestiness. one of her main points was the need of audiences to support authors. reed read from notes and ended by focusing on the need to get involved with and the potential of the internet. he invited people to visit his web site where he publishes authors from all over. reed frequently alluded to his "paranoia" and his tendency to see "conspiracies" in addressing the anti-black mood that is prevalent in today's america, likening much of it to the jews in pre-war germany thinking they were fully integrated into german society. there was only time for a few questions and answers. there may have been four, possibly five. two of the people basically made statements. one question was asked by yvette hutchinson, a young ph.d. student/worker from england: what's the responsibility of the writer. none of the panelists wanted to take a proscriptive position. mosley noted the importance of writing and writing well. sanchez said that she didn't want to be revisionist and that she had lived through a period when writers were sometimes told what to writer, and that she had at times been part of the group attempting to direct writers, nevertheless, she did think the writing needed to address the problems of being human in this time and space. reed, who is not noted as an ideologue or revolutionary artist took the opportunity to address the need to get rid of all these puppet regimes. again, reed stressed that the internet could be used to push democratic movements and to overthrow dictatorships. and then they closed the panel and that was the opening night.
after the panel as we milled around, various folk came up to holler at me--i was sitting on the first row and gilyard had given me a shout out from the stage, so folk knew i was there. had already made plans to hook up with troy johnson of aalbc.com and ron kavanaugh of mosaic magazine and mosaicbooks.com. but this is new york and there were all kinds of people there, a number of whom i knew. there was a bloom of comradery in the air as we hugged, gave dapped, trade contact info and were generally glad to see each other. after the event i checked into the hotel and then troy johnson picked me up making a foursome along with ron kavanuagh and nicole shields (who is out of chicago and was in town for the conference). we jetted over to bam to catch the tail end of a show by carl hancock rux in the bam cafe. i was scheduled to meet my daughter kiini there. when we walked in carl was literally signing off. fortunately, he had been well received and the audience brought him back for an encore. carl did "blue candy" from his cd (which i reviewed in the current issue of qbr-quarterly review of black books). carl's work was very close to what is on the record. the cafe was full, there were maybe 150 to 200 people in the place. ran up on greg tate who was hanging. we hugged and hollered at each other. tate is a major music writer and up and coming musician on the new york scene. a number of hancock's band members greeted tate as they left the stage.
from there we rolled out to a senegalese restaurant for a late night repast; it was about 11pm. the food was excellent. but that's new york--the vibrancy of some many cultures clashing and competing, everybody going for theirs and in the process making it possible for the folk to reality surf the cultures of the world. we had a ball talking about different things. and this is one of the most valuable aspects of attending conferences like this. the opportunity for extended exchanges. of course we did a lot of talk about using the internet--i promised troy i was going to write a piece for aalbc pointing out some of my concerns.
meanwhile there is a brouhaha raging because the conference is restricting access for those who produced literary publications and wanted to give them away. i have friends on both sides of the battle line. the main issue seems to be the decision that, other than qbr, no publication could be given away at the conference. some people see that as a negative manuveur by max rodriguez of qbr. max predictably is upset that the issue is being personalized. he argued that provisions were made that any and all publications could be sold at the conference via the conference bookseller, nkiru books, and that a table was being made available for folk to give away flyers and subscription forms. meanwhile, some dissenters are drafting a letter to dr. elizabeth nunez, the director of the conference. i've advised that it is important to stress what you want and what you think ought to be done, more important than merely lodging a protest. we'll see. early the next morning i get a phone call from david earl jackson who is doing the black music institute (you've seen there annoucements on e-drum). we send black shout-outs humming from the brooklyn to manhattan. david asks me did i hear that so-and-so got a $50,000 advance for an anthology and that he is not paying any of the writers and that's so wrong and he knows of a guy who is in the anthology and that guy feels he's getting dicked… man i haven't been in new york 24hours and i'm already in the middle of the behind the scenes conflicts.
i told him i have no idea what the contractee got or is getting to put the anthology together, and moreover, from what i knew no one put a gun to anyone's head to make them contribute to the anthology. sure i believe in paying writiers, but i also know that i have freely contributed to anthologies. that was my choice regardless of what the editor was paid or not paid. as david and i talked further we both agreed that whether to be in anthology or not is a decision each writer should make and that each writer should look out for their own best interests, whether that's an issue of getting paid or of protecting copy rights, etc. but i wasn't going to hate. if it were me and i got a five figure advance, sure i would pay the writers, but there is no rule that one has to do so, and, similarly, there is no rule that one has to give one's work away. make a decision and go with it -- but if you don't like the rules, don't play the game. playing the game and then complaining is a form of submission that basically supports the continuation of the very thing one complains about.
further, this is not a personal thing--although it is true that personalities are involved. this issue is a systemic issue. new york is dense, dense, dense with writers trying to make it. and even though this is the publishing center of the united states, there really aren't that many opportunities for black writers. so what happens. people fight over the golden carrot. folk come to new york because the carrot is a golden carrot, not because there are enough carrots go around. it is inevitable that there will be infighting and back stabbing unless there is a larger political or at least politicized struggle going on. unfortunately, this is a period of career struggle and commercialization rather than political struggle and community organizing. being here in new york the lights are brighter and the issues sharply outlined. it's not that black folk in new york have so much more than black folk anyplace else, it's just that the stakes are bigger here and there are more of us fighting for an opportunity to chew on the golden carrot (and to try to avoid the whip lashes of repression which are also heavy duty in new york, 41-times heavier than other places).
later in the morning i do an interview with yvette hutchinson who is writing about the black arts movement, focusing on the aesthetic theories that came out of that movement. she has done her research well and is very conversant with the material. i enjoy the interview. afterwards kiini comes by and we walk three or four blocks over to a branch of the brooklyn public library so we can jump on line and check email. tonight is the program at the schomburg in harlem. i will moderate a panel and later on be one of the readers on a poetry set.
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