Report from the Field
National Black Writers Conference 2000
Part 3 of 3
“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. saturday, 1 april 2000. 9a.m. i'm climbing into the van. it had been a long night and now it would be an early morning. i wonder how many people will actually be there for an early session. unfortunately, two sets of workshops are running concurrently and they are in two different locationsdifferent as in one is in the building where the auditorium, book vending room, and registration tables are, and the other is two blocks away in the gym. you can't simply jump back and forth between them.
this conference is totally decentralized. my initial response is skepticism as to whether having programs in different locations works. thursday night was at medgar evers (brooklyn) in the auditorium. friday was at the schomburg uptown in harlem. saturday evening is at the public theatre downtown manhattan. since my daughter is here and a number of friends, i have no problem getting around, but i wonder about folks coming from out of town who don't know anyone on the ground. at the same time the turnout at the various venues suggests that it was not a problem for the general population as all of the major events were standing room only. i suppose it's my parochial sentimentality, looking for warm and cozy. i'm in the big apple now. suck it up, get over it, move on or get out the way
in the final analysis, the conference organizers seem to have got it right. i did not hear one complaint and did have a couple of people say they were glad that at least part of the conference was at the schomburg, or was in manhattan, etc.
the panels are scheduled to start at 10a.m. max is in the hallways, alert, dapper and smiling. we talk a bit about the friday night programhe has received great feedback. he doesn't seem drug about the time issue or staceyann. i see people walking around with poets&writers magazine, the issue that has sapphire on the cover. there is a table where they are stacked and free for the taking. i make a mental note. later when i see ron kavenaugh i tell him. ron puts out the handful of mosaic magazines he has with him and a small bunch of flyers. cool.
workshop-4a (in the gym) is "the impact of black literature on society: reaping what we sowed." the moderator is james dejongh and the panelists are john a. williams, syl cheney coker, thulani davis and stanley crouch. workshop-4b (in the auditorium) is the same title but the moderator is george irish and the panelists are quincy troupe, bebe campbell moore, maryse conde, elizabeth nunez. it's a tough call for me, but i end up going to 4a, my love for john a. williams outweights all other considerations including my distaste for stanley crouch.
now i have to find the gym. i see keith gilyard in the hallway. he is headed that way, so i gladly tag along. when we get there we see that the audience is sparsekeith said in previous years they had a full gym. perhaps it's still a bit early. as the panel is setting up, i see that thulani is not there. i am disappointed. but no shows go with being in new york. for those of us outside the apple, this is a major event. but in the apple, it's just another weekend, special to some folk, and completely off the radar of other folk. turns out that at the various panels there will be no shows all day long.
pretty soon the panel is underway. and it seems to be ordinary panel talk. williams prepared a short piece which he presented and it was appreciated. coker, who is an award winning sierra leonian poet and novelists was both polite and precise in his remarks. both novelists spoke about the shifts happening in the literature as a reflection of changing social conditions. they spoke while seated at the panel table. then it was crouch's turn. he said he felt more comfortable at the podium. said that he agreed with some of what his fellow panelists had to say. then said but he disagreed with a lot of what they had to say. and then launched into pro forma stanley speak. rather than say specifically what he disagreed with, crouch started erecting straw men--"black folks who do this
we need to stop doing that
these rappers are crazy
etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. i could feel my southern manners melting away and the tiger ready to jump out of my mouth as stanley droned on his litany of what's wrong with black folks.
i wish i could tell you i remained cool. i wish i could tell you that i didn't let past knowledge of infamous crouch confrontations with friends and associates cloud my judgement. i wish i could say that i behaved, but i didn't. when crouch said even the crackers wouldn't refuse blood just cause a black man invented plasma, i unlocked the last chain and went dead at stanley. i didn't rise up out of my seat, but my voice pounced the 100 or so feet between us: "you're lying, stanley. and you know you're lying. you know good and well there was a major struggle with the red cross and in the army about giving negro blood to white soldiers, “you're lying.”
predictably there was a moment of hushed embarrassment. crouch had the microphone and tried to speak over me. i just turned it up a notch and repeated: "you're lying about that and you know better."
the moderator tapped on his microphone and began calling for order. crouch laughed, no, no, he said, it's ok. i like this. this is alright.
i wasn't agitated. i wasn't even standing up. i was sitting. and when i finished i just sat back and listened silently to crouch's rebuttal.
typically, he started talking about my person: i see you're wearing glasses, crouch said to me, i don't see you not wearing them because a white man invented them.
i just smiled. then the moderator said that if audience members wanted to ask a question or make a comment would they please go to the microphone. as stanley wrapped up his last remarks, i rose slowly and deliberately moved to the microphone. there was a murmured undercurrent flowing through the small audience. i guess people were waiting to see this erupt into a full fledged, name calling, shouting match, especially since we now both had microphones. after crouch sat down and i was recognized by the moderator i made a short statement and asked a question.
i regularly read sun tzu's art of war. to do what was expected and continue an attack on crouch would have been counter productive. so i took a different tack, i said, rather than argue back and forth, we have in our presence a man who is arguably our greatest and certainly our most prolific living novelist. he has written over 20 books. i would like to hear him tell us how he got started writing novels and how he manages to find something fresh to say novel, after novel. we may never have an opportunity like this again. and then i sat down to scattered applause.
john a. williams spoke for about ten minutes starting with his background as a young adolescent learning to enjoy reading and took it all the way up to the present and his recent release of his novel, clifford's blues, about blacks in german concentration camps.
after that exchange, a couple of other people asked questions or made statements. one young sister rose to make a comment. she said that she didn't think it was right for some black people to say that other black people weren't black because they crossed their legs and clapped politely because that is the way she was raised and she was black and people who don't come from big cities are black too. and then she sat back down one seat removed from me. we had met on the walk over with keith and one of keith's students. she was talking about me and citing two lines in one of the poems i had performed the night before. i was glad she had spoken up.
we talked briefly and reached an understanding. there is no single measuring rod of blackness. what came clearer as we spoke is that she felt isolated and alienated both from a number of black people and from whites. she was in school at the graduate level. i encouraged her to clearly identify what she wanted and to go after it. also told her that in our workshop in new orleans we have people who are from the city and people who are from small country towns, people who are christians, one black person who is jewish, and a number of heathens.
at the conclusion of the panel i went up to stanley. we talked briefly. he said that if i had let him finish making his points he was headed in a different direction. i pressed him on asserting the notion that whites, especially, to use his word, "crackers" just accepted blacks. crouch had also talked about the american promise--but what had america promised the slave? as we used to say, nothing but hard times and bubble gum, and they were fresh out of bubble gum!
my point was then and remains, to the degree that america has changed it has not been because of the beneficence or innate goodness of this society but as a result of struggle
you know the frederick douglass quote about power concedes nothing
anyway, he agreed that maybe he had exaggerated a bit. we shook hands. and it was time to move on to the next session.
i was wrong to blurt out the way i did. i admit it, publicly. i know that part of crouch's modus operandi is to provoke emotional outbursts. and another part is to bully people. he is far from a oaf. he has a great deal of knowledge across a broad range, but i think he hates himself, hates his black self.
keith left before the panel was over. troy johnson and ron kavanaugh were there. we talked and decided to move back over to the main building and maybe stop for a bite to eat. as a result i missed the panel, "critiquing black writers: who can say what is good." moderated by max rodriguez with panelists calvin reid, andrew hubsch, robert fleming, arlene mckanic and anthony davis. actually, i had overlooked it on the program because it was listed as 4c but actually took place after the 4a and 4b panels. my bad.
after lunch the next set of panels started. 5a was "breaking the mold in the '80s and '90s." moderated by nettie jones with panelists e. lynn harris, suheir hammad, arthur flowers, and asha bandele. 5b was the same title moderated by june bobb with panelists sapphire, junot diaz, michele wallace and trey ellis. it was another tough call. i had friends on both panels and once again it was not convenient to jump back and forth. finally i reasoned since i had seen asha bandele back in november and it had been over a year since i had seen michele wallace, i would go to 5b. turns out michele was not there but junot and sapphire were in full effect.
this was easily the panel i enjoyed most. junot was ribaldly hilarious full of witty insights, blunt, fast-paced observations, and a command of language that moved swiftly from high diction to gutter talk and back again in the blink of an eye without a pause for breath as he slaughtered every sacred cow within reach of his razor tongue. (one elderly black woman walked out in protest, saying that he should learn how to talk.)
junot brought up the issue that it seemed that the majority of publishing opportunities were going to mfa graduates. of course he got my attention when he said that as i have long believed there is an internal struggle going on with academics who are attempting to narrow the definition of black literature even as they argue that they are for experimentation, freedom, diversity, individuality and all the buzz words used to cover the fact that they inevitably exclude from serious consideration those who do not have academic credentials. junot said he didn't want to be hypocritical, so he was not saying don't get a mfa. he had one and it has helped him. but he also knew that there were other writers who did not have an mfa and that they deserved recognition. sapphire was batting clean-up. once junot was on based she knocked the ball clean out the park. began talking about the commercialization of literture. junot came back (actually, this was like shaq and kobe, sapphire being shaq slam dunking her points home, and junot was kobebut without the hairmaking them wildass moves all over the place). trey ellis sat on the end, speaking up every now and then but clearly a step too slow to keep up with his colleagues on the other end of the table who were literally having a ball. the room was humming with the excitement people feel when they realize that they are listening to people who are calling it like they see it, not holding back and not caring that the new york times or anybody else was there to report on their brazen behavior.
terry mcmillan, walter mosley, sonia sanchez and a bunch of other folk were in the audience. (terry was vocally in the audience, speaking up without need of microphone.) at one point junot and sapphire riffed on capitalism and how it is destroying people around the globe and that ultimately our writing should deal with these and other questions. the panel had the feel of a living room jam session with people just throwing down.
panel 6 was "black writers writing for movies and tv." moderated by carlyle thompson and featuring julie dash, binta breeze, manthia diawara, terry mcmillan, tim reid, and frances anne solomon. binta breeze was not there. although terry was clearly the most well known and in many ways the most outspokenat one point an audience member talked about the importance of documentaries to tell our stories and get out history out there. terry bluntly said: that's not what i want to do. she wasn't been contrary or unkind, just clear about where terry's interests were. in any case, none of that withstanding, tim reid's presentation and responses to questions was a most insightful look at movie production. he broke down the economics of it, the difficulties, that just making a little money was not a success, and on and on. the auditorium was standing room only.
|"i don't believe our future is in the majors. i believe we have to develop our own. at the same time, i understand and support the notion that those who want to be in the majors ought to have that opportunity free of discrimination and intrigue. at one point, one of the panelists asked how many writers were in the audience who were trying to get published. a bunch of hands shot up
and that told the whole story." |
and that wrapped it up for the programs at medgar evers. the next panel and a reading to follow were in downtown manhattan at joseph papp's public theatre. there was a champagne reception at medgar evers immediately following the panel, but we spaced on that and walked over to the subway to get to the theatre. good thing we did. we got there half hour before the program was scheduled to start, so we had no trouble getting in and getting seats. by quarter of the house was almost full. by start time, once again it was standin g room only. turns out that bunches of people got turned away. the room only sat 200. the planers did not expect as large a crowd as turned out.
the panel was co-sponsored by the pen/open book committee. the "roundtable with editors, agents and publicists" was moderated by max rodriguez and featured faith childs, beverly robinson, manie barron, tracy sherrod, cheryl woodruff and anita diggs. faith childs was not there. i didn't have any particular expectations, but essentially they spoke about what they do in the publishing world at the major houses and what the current trends are, along with suggestions on how to break into publishing. in some ways this was the least informative of all the panels because the information was standard publishing info just with a personal twist and anecdotes. no one said anything wrong, misleading or backward, but it wasi guess the best way to say it is: status quo. for those who were totally unfamiliar with publishing, the panel was probably good. on the other hand, to be totally fair to the panelists, there was not much else that they could have said.
i don't believe our future is in the majors. i believe we have to develop our own. at the same time, i understand and support the notion that those who want to be in the majors ought to have that opportunity free of discrimination and intrigue. at one point, one of the panelists asked how many writers were in the audience who were trying to get published. a bunch of hands shot up
and that told the whole story. a number of people want to know how to get their piece of the rock. and that's what the panel was about. the reading that was to follow was set up on an interesting premise. friday night uptown in harlem we had performance poets. saturday evening in manhattan we had the cave canem poets, poets who were text oriented. it got ugly at the door for a minute. seems like very few people left after the panel was over, so the bunches of folk waiting outside to get in for the reading had to remain outside cause there was very little room inside. again, who would have thunk there was going to be this large a turnout. things come together slowly. the emcee is rone frazier, who was in the process of easing his way out of the job as managing editor over at black issues book reviewseems like they get a new editor every issue. i know it is extremely difficult to pull together a new publication in this new millennium. takes a bunch of money and a tight, tight game plan. anyway, rone and i had talked a number of times on the phone, it was good to meet him. in addition to the cave canem poets there were three others: ishmael reed, who was first up. and two young novelists, janus adams and colin channer, who read last. sandwiched in the middle were cave canem co-founder cornelius eady along with peggy ann tartt, lorelei williams and erica doyle.
while i sometimes disagree with reed's politics, i have always liked his witty iconoclasm. his poetry chops have atrophied a bit because i don't think he writes poetry as often as he used to. some of his new work didn't have the snap and bite that is characteristic of early reed, but he did end with a poem for guiliana that was pure venom, and the way he structured it you didn't realize whom he was talking about (or, i should say whom the persona of the poem was because it was written in the first person) until the last line which went something like, and to think i used to be the mayor. cornelius eady was second and i really enjoyed the precision and irony of his verse. his reading was quiet and did not have much performance flair to it but the strength of his craft carried the day. the three young poets who followed him are coming along the hudson (to quote monk), although they are not quite there yet, but if they keep writing they will get there.
of the four cave canem poets, only cornelius evidenced a feel for the sound of his words. for most of them it was all about meaning and subtlety on the page, but this was a reading. in my less charitable moments i will assert that a black poet ain't worth much if they can't rock an audience of black folk who have come to hear them. in general, black folk love good oratory. and the contemporary emphasis on spoken word and performance poetry is right up black folks' alley. plus, all other things being equal, we will dig anybody who can talk that talk.
so on the one hand we have black page writers who don't talk that talk and we have non-black performance artists who do talk that talk, and that makes for some interesting reactions. thus, the fact that there were non-blacks presented at the black writers conference did not seem to cause any major upset because almost all of those non-blacks identified with black cultural expressions. hence, steve coleman at the schomburg was respectfully received. this was not always the case with us. i can recall back in 1970 at the founding of the congress of afrikan people in atlanta in the morehouse gym (i think) during one of the "inner-attainment" (i.e. entertainment) sessions, jerry butler was announced. people applauded wildly. butler's band began ascending the stage. the blond head of his bass player poked through the curtain and that was all she wrote. boos reigned down like mythic manna from heaven. the audience would not even let all the band members climb on stage. i don't honestly remember if i booed, but i do not think i disagreed at the time. it seemed to me a lapse of judgement to bring a caucasian to the founding of a congress for afrikan people. was it a lapse of judgement to include non-blacks in the line up for the black writers conference?
there is no simple answer. on the one hand, there were so many black writers who wanted to participate and deserved to participate, that it is hard to justify filling up a much sought after slot with a non-black when the focus is by title on black writers. on the other hand, are we dealing with race or culture, or both? what consciousness is brought to the table in making decisions and plotting direction?
i think we need programs that are diverse and we need programs that are specific, we need both rather than one or the other. in the long run, i think it would be better for the national black writers conference to stay specific in its presentation of writers
and even as i write that, i know i don't really mean it in the absolute sense. i know that at some point if the conference decides to do a couple of panels of critical overviews of specific eras or specific writers, i know there are non-blacks who have significant contributions they can make in that context.
and i know this seems partially contradictory to what i said on friday night at the schomburg when i said that people that can't dance couldn't be experts on what we are doing. well, as i typically do from time to time, i over stressed one element and ignored another element. there is a difference between research and contextualization and emotional identificationand response. when you get right down to it, i believe like terrance (the enslaved african writer of roman times) said: there is nothing that is human that is foreign to me, and also, there is nothing about what i do that need be foreign to others. we can learn to understand and appreciate each other. indeed, there are black critics who can't dance and whose work is largely irrelevant. so, although i did not specify race when i made my comments, i want to make clear that i do not believe in racial essentialism. yes, tamika, there are non-blacks who can dance, who can understand and criticize our culture. i know that is hard to swallow, especially coming from my hand. it is very, very difficult to fight against one's own socially induced and continuously reinforced bias to base everything on race as a biological determinant. but each and every (regardless of color) race based philosophy is a romanticism of the worse sort and ought to be struggled with.
we in america, especially ought to be wary of putting too much emphasis on racial essentialness given that our conception of racial blackness includes everything from ebony to ivory, i.e. as a people of mixed heritage, blackness as a racial term is inclusive of damn near anybody who claims blackness or black ancestry. nevertheless, it is hard, very, very hard to struggle with internal racial biases.
i hope that at the next conference, if the decision is made to include non-blacks that either in a formal statement or in the opening session or at some major point in the proceedings, that decision is directly addressed. meanwhile, back at the public theatre, folk were actually leaving between poetsat one point so many people were moving out noisily that the next poet pointedly said, i'll wait.
|"i think we need to get to the point that poets are both good writers and good performers. right now the poles are perceived as mutually exclusive, but there are signs that folk are realizing that the wholistic way is to excel at both." |
(on more than one occasion, these reports have unintentionally upset people i had no intention of offendingand please do not read this to mean that i do not intentionally offend. as the crouch incident makes clear, i do go on the offensive and i am willing to take a firm position on a given issue, but on this particular issue, i want to try to be as clear as possible because i am not talking about individuals, i am talking about poetic approaches.) the page poets have been trained toward subtlety of execution but that training does not include vocalizing the work, thus they are generally boring readers. the mini-exodus that punctuated the reading represented not a rejection of the poets or their poetry, but a rejection of the approach the poets took in presenting their poetry.
not a one of these mfa programs that i am aware of, spend any significant time teaching poets how to perform their work and how to craft work for performance, thus mfa trained poets can not help but be at a disadvantage when called upon to do a reading especially when compared and contrasted to poets for whom performing is more important than the crafting of the individual poem.
i think we need to get to the point that poets are both good writers and good performers. right now the poles are perceived as mutually exclusive, but there are signs that folk are realizing that the wholistic way is to excel at both. in one sense, this point was brought home even more strongly by the two novelists.
the first brother read from a novel about college lifeit was pop fiction of the most commercial sort. the sort that confuses reportage with writing. he said, she said and a couple of physical descriptions does not artful writing make. again though, this is a school of writing, a trend encouraged by commercial views of black fiction. and whatever currency and popularity such writing may have, there is no substance there and that lack of substance, like the emperor's new clothes, is apparent to all, even if a number of people are buying it.
when colin channer began reading from his new novel, it was immediately obvious that there was a major difference between he and the preceding reader. channer read well but it was not even about how well he read because the previous reader was not a poor reader. no, the difference was in the content and craft of the work. prose writers typically do not read to audiences the way poets do. but channer easily won the audience's attention. i think there is a sound to black literature, this "sounding aesthetic" as i call it, is a distinguishing characteristic. channer's prose had that sounding quality and thus was better received than the poets who preceded him. there was an after party set up at the housing works café, but it was after ten, i had to be up early, early before sunrise to catch a flight out. i was digging the scene but i had to split.
overall, this was the best time i have had in new york. i saw beaucoup people i haven't seen in a long timei won't name any names because i don't want to leave anyone out and i know i will forget someone.
there are areas where i think the conference could be improved. mainly i think there ought to be a couple of "how to" sessions (such as how to submit manuscripts, how to get jobs as a freelance writer) and there definitely needs to be a session or two on the internet and electronic publishing. plus, it might be nice to commission one or two major keynote addresses. and finally , at some point, we need to look at developing a black writers congress, union, fellowship, organization, something we can join together on and share information and resources. these are just a few areas where i think the medgar evers national black writers conference can go in the future. i want to end with a strong shout out to elizabeth nunez, who quietly, efficiently and effectively made the conference happen. for much of the conference she was low-key and well in the background, but make no mistake she the captain who brought the ship splendidly into port. it is not easy to do a conference of this magnitude, and doing it in new york (and dealing with the cornucopia of egos rampant there) has got to be a challenge of another magnitude, but dr. nunez did it. and that is the story of our people, regardless of the odds or the circumstances, we get it done. to stay abreast of what's going on with the black writers conference visit their website at www.blackwriters.net stay strong/be bold a luta continua kalamu
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