"We Want to Read about Ourselves": Writers and Scholars Assess State of Black Literature

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Is the current resurgence in Black literature

and enduring one or is it just a "spike"? What's driving it? Will it last?

And how should colleges and universities respond in their literature

classes?

These and other issues were raised recently by a distinguished panel

of writers, publishers and academicians on the live videoconference

"The Revival of Black Literature," sponsored by Black Issues In Higher

Education.

Moderating the event was former news anchor and president of

Bunyan Communications, Maureen Bunyan. Panelists included: W. Paul

Coates, founder and publisher Black Classic Press; E. Lynn Harris, a

current bestselling author; Sandra Kitt, author of Black romance novels;

Dr. Eugenia Collier, an essayist and the former chair of the Department

of English at Morgan State University; John Edgar Wideman, the first writer to

win the Pen Faulkner Prize twice; and Max Rodriguez, publisher of The Quarterly

Black Review of Books.

The question of whether the Harlem

Renaissance was a spike--an upsurge that

peaked and then fell off dramatically--or

"the" turning point in African-American

literature set the tone for the discussion."The

Harlem Renaissance was that period when

Black literature flourished, but I always like to

put it in context. It seems to me that when

there is a cultural expression, writing always

follows that," Rodriguez said.

"It followed not just a mass migration

from the South to the North, but also a great

movement around music, and a great

expression of self that found its way to New

York, because New York was always

`Mecca,"' he noted, adding, "There was a

literary movement prior to the Renaissance,

but for the first time we found writers who

were accepted by white audiences and white

publishers. And that really is what the Harlem

Renaissance was--the acceptance of our

expression by a white audience."

Collier asked: "Was acceptance of our

work by whites what caused the Harlem

Renaissance? And if we are in a renaissance

now, does its depend upon white acceptance

of our work?"

In comparing the Harlem Renaissance

to the present, Harris pointed out that one

difference today is that the success of

contemporary Black writers is being spurred

by Black readers, not by mainstream

acceptance. "One of the things that's been

most heartwarming for me at my signings has

been that it's been Black people who have

been buying my books," said Harris.

But there is a commonality, said Kitt.

"We may, as writers, be writing for our

communities and our people, but the

publishers are still mainstream publishers and

they are not [publishing Black writers! for

altruistic reasons but because they know there

is a market there and consumer dollars that

they could potentially benefit from. The

bottom line for publishers is still the money to

be made."

Other panelists agreed and Wideman said

the most important point to remember about

the Harlem Renaissance was not whether the

audience was Black or white, but that it was a

period of tremendous self-assertion.

"Whenever we see a change, it has to do

with consciousness, politics and with all the

cultural institutions being spiked in various

ways. And that energy--to me--was really

what the Harlem Renaissance was all about,"

Wideman said.

Coates agreed with Wideman but added

that the Renaissance, while being centered in

Harlem, was not geographically limited to

that part of the country. …