Black Writers - The transforming power of their literature
“I write not for myself, but to transform my life and the lives of others.” Those words spoken by author Marita Golden struck a chord with me as I interviewed her on her book Don’t Play in the Sun. With those words, Golden affirmed the transforming power that literature has in our lives. Reading literature as a child allowed me to imagine other worlds, other lives and alternative realities. It was both comforting and challenging as it expanded my knowledge, raised questions and reminded me about the value that remembering has for our lives.
We know well the adage that those who do not remember are forced to repeat the mistakes of the past. In his most recent book, Fanon: A Novel, John Edgar Wideman reminds us that in the tradition of the Igbo of Nigeria, “a person does not die until the living stop remembering, stop telling stories about the person.” Wideman is drawn to Frantz Fanon and feels compelled to tell the story of this philosopher, psychiatrist, activist and political writer whose book The Wretched of the Earth inspired leaders of diverse political movements across the world. Wideman’s novel provides the reader with glimpses into Fanon’s inner mind. Wideman recounts how the work and life of Fanon have transformed and motivated him to provide a way for others to connect to this extraordinary man who had an impact on so many lives. He reaffirms for us how remembered lives change the world.
Our motivation for writing often comes from a deeply felt desire to make sense of a complicated world. Writers are the griots, visionaries, mythmakers, documentarians and chroniclers of our realities. They tell those stories that have not been told and that need to be told. Their writing is multifaceted and complicated, representing a legacy of the triumphs and indomitable spirit of people from across the African Diaspora. Margaret T. Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, reminds us of the value of these legacies in her poem “What Will Your Legacy Be?”
As readers, we find pleasure in literature. We marvel at the aesthetics of a literary text, at how writers use language, manipulate words and create images. However, we should also be mindful of the impact of the literature produced by Black writers on our culture and society. When Black writers compose literary texts, their intent is to enter into conversations with other writers and contribute to a master narrative that represents diverse, national and global cultures. However, too often this master narrative has left Black writers out of the conversation and has distorted, marginalized or negatively portrayed the complicated stories and lives of Black people. If Black writers are indeed contributing to a master literary narrative, then it is incumbent upon readers to critically interrogate that narrative. The reader should be aware of how the experiences of Black people are placed and from whose perspective these stories are told.
The National Black Writers Confe-rence at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York has been a venue for bringing together readers, writers, scholars and stakeholders in the publishing industry to discuss the literature produced by a cross generation of emerging and established Black writers. Founded in 1986 by the late John Oliver Killens, writer, literary activist, teacher and mentor, the conference had its roots in 1959, when Killens suggested to Sarah Wright and John Henry Clarke that the American Society of African Culture establish an annual conference for “Negro” writers. Killens served as writer-in-residence at Fisk and Howard universities and continued to sponsor Black writers conferences. When he came to Medgar Evers College as writer- in- residence in 1985, he called upon writers he knew and held one of the largest and most energizing conferences he had ever had. Writers for that first conference included Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Amiri Baraka, Calvin Hernton, Ishmael Reed and Margaret Walker. It has been and continues to be the tradition of the National Black Writers Conferences at Medgar Evers to raise public awareness of the range and depth of literature produced by Black writers and to provide the general public, students, educators and academics with an opportunity to converse with writers, booksellers, literary agents, publishers and editors on the craft, aesthetics, themes and direction of Black writing. Our Ninth National Black Writers Conference, “Black Writers: Reading and Writing to Transform Their Lives and the World,” which is sponsored by the college’s Center for Black Literature, will examine the ways in which the literature of diasporic writers has transformed the literary landscape. The conference will serve as a reminder that in reading and writing we empower ourselves and the world.
Brenda M. Greene, Ph.D., is professor of English and executive director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.
By Brenda M. Greene, Ph.D.