Monday, April 03, 2006

National Black Writers Conference @ Medgar Evers College

“If you want to know where a people are going, just look at the artists.”

-- John Oliver Killens

"What comes forth from you as an artist cannot be controlled. But you have responsibilities as a global citizen. Your history dictates your duty. And by writing about black people, you are not limiting yourself. The experiences of African-Americans are as wide open as God's closet."

-- August Wilson

We give our dead

To the orchards

And the groves.

We give our dead To life.


Is a great Change-

Is life's greatest Change.

We honor our beloved dead.

As we mix their essence with the earth,

We remember them,

And within us,

They live.

-- Octavia E. Butler, Earthseed quote

The 8th annual National Black Writers Conference held at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn this past weekend was great, as in, sho'll glad I was a witness, sho'll glad I had this experience, well worth remembering and noting here. Dedicated to the memory of August Wilson and Octavia E. Butler, writers and readers from around the nation gathered to celebrate and expand discussions of race, identity, history, and genre in black literature. My panel with Samuel R. Delany, Tananarive Due, and Walter Mosley went very well, with some funny introductions by our moderator Robert Reid-Pharr (CUNY Graduate Center) who had a little struggle with pronouncing some of our names and wonderful questions from the audience. Tananarive talked about growing up in a civil rights activist family, living in the suburbs, being called an 'oreo,' and learning to write horror from her fears. I talked about growing up among storytellers and voracious readers in North Memphis, my experience of the genre as a young reader and later as a teen, revisiting it after reading Kindred in college, and writing works reflecting the language and the rhythm of my community. The discussion of Octavia E. Butler was very moving, with Delany and Mosley's talk serving as excellent bookends to the discussion. Delany read a little from an introduction (?) he'd written for Octavia in the past, interweaving his talk with reflections on how pleased he was to witness her development from being one of his students (introduced to him by Harlan Ellison) to being a cherished colleague in the field. He ended by sharing some of the eulogy presented at her tribute at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle.

Walter also shared a very funny and insightful story about being invited to a 'meeting of the elders' by Harry Belafonte, an impressive gathering held at a hotel that was also hosting a science fiction convention. He also discussed conservatism in the black community and how that impacts our literature. It was good to meet folk I'd only 'seen' online, and spend time with the Clarion '99 crew, Ama Patterson and Andrea Hairston, who was even cheered on by the audience to stand up and accept due praise for the recent publication of her novel, Mindscape, the latest debut from new Dark Matter writers. When asked about young adult spec fiction by black writers, I got a chance to give a shout out to Nnedi's Zahrah the Windseeker, Walter's 47, and of course, Virginia Hamilton (check out her trilogy, Justice and Her Brothers or her fantasy, The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, that explores African Gods and the Middle Passage). Could have kicked myself for forgetting Walter Dean Myers' Shadow of the Red Moon, but there it is. Time was flying and lots of folk wanted to share. Later I had a chance to offer additional recommendations at my writing workshop, but next time I'm bringing a flyer! Jaime Levine from Warner Aspect sent Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund flyers to the conference, and I invited folk to visit the Carl Brandon Society blog and join if the mission speaks to'em.

We also had a chance to hear Steven Barnes and Camille Yarbrough (Cornrows, Ancestor House) speak brilliantly on their 'Black Writer as Literary and Cultural Artist' panel with Carl Hancock Rux (whose novel, Asphalt seems quite speculative to me!). At one point, a young woman from the audience took issue with what she heard from Ms. Yarbrough as overgeneralized criticism of young Hip-Hop folk and a misreading of the L'il Kim 'situation.' She wanted Ms. Yarbrough to know that not all of her generation is unaware of the issues discussed and their impact on their community, and that L'il Kim is going to jail because she lied... I really appreciated this young woman sharing her thoughts, because there weren't many folk her age there, although there were lots of lovely babies and l'il bits (Steve and Tananarive's family is beautiful!). I was pleased to see that the moderator, Carlos Russell, gave Ms. Yarbrough an opportunity to graciously respond, acknowledging the young woman's comments and clarifying her thoughts on L'il Kim and her opinion on how easy it is for an artist to become a tool of oppression by complicity. Andrea said later that the two women's discussion reminded her a little of what she is exploring in her next novel, Exploding in Slow Motion, this idea that these two women from very different generations were talking a little past each other, but discussing the same thing - that elder Camille just wanted to know that her sacrifices and those of her generation hadn't been made for nothing and that somebody out there was willing to try to carry on. Later, this reminded me of the recent threads on FEM-SF, discussing whether or not a feminist science fiction community exists, and what that could or should like. Whether we all agree or not on this vision, it seems very important to continue to these intergenerational conversations, if only as a periodic pulse check. I know it can get weary for those who have added their voice to these talks many times before--quite possibly repeating some of the same thoughts, the same history, and bumping up against the same frustrations--but as a new journeywoman, these talks offer vital historical/cross-cultural context and I appreciate this opportunity to expand my own vision.

Here is a segment Brooklyn's News 12 aired last night. Part of it was filmed during my workshop and it includes Brenda Greene, the conference organizer and director of the Center for Black Literature at MEC, and an emerging writer, Doug McIntosh - who is in fact, a fan of sf&f and a spec fiction writer, despite the editing here. ;-)

All Best,

PS - The Center for Black Literature @ Medgar Evers College has sponsored two writing programs featuring Kindred and Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, where high schoolers read, discuss, adapt the books into plays, and perform for their peers. The last performance went on the road to other local high schools and the NCTE.


Anonymous Liz said...

Thanks for posting this!

I seem to be having similar conversations a lot lately, trying to smooth the feathers of people who are tired of repeating round and round and are worrying that no one's listening...

4/03/2006 6:38 PM  
Blogger Sheree Renée Thomas said...

Yes, I knew I 'was getting up there' when I started feeling that way myself. A necessary cycle it seems...

All Best,

5/23/2006 9:04 AM  

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