The Arts Lose Two Giants

By Barras, Jonetta Rose | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Arts Lose Two Giants


Barras, Jonetta Rose, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Diminutive. Coke bottle glasses. Nervous stutter. These were the things that caught my attention when I first met Stephen Henderson in the late 1970s. I wore army fatigue pants, clogs, my hair all over my head, and a militant demeanor. But my formidable carriage shrunk in the presence of his powerful intellect.

First impressions are rarely the last. The soul doesn't expose itself at first knock. Often repeated and lengthy visits are required before we come to know the true character of a person. I am not sure which experience taught me this lesson. But I can say, if I had passed Mr. Henderson by as some nerdy, bumbling, university professor, I would have missed one of my life's richest experiences.

The former director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, Mr. Henderson was a significant part of the literary trinity who made Howard University sparkle. Along with Sterling Brown and Arthur P. Davis, he guided young writers, providing historical context and words of encouragement for our travels. The co-author of the "Militant Black Writer: In Africa and the U.S.A.." and of the landmark anthology "Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References," Mr. Henderson, we were sure, knew us and believed in what we were attempting to do. He wasn't just slumming.

The institute sponsored the National Black Writers Conference which brought together some of the most important literary figures of that decade including Sonia Sanchez, Sarah Fabio, Margaret Walker and, yes, the more popular Amiri Baraka and Toni Morrison. John Oliver Killens was writer in residence, as was Haki Madhubuti, who now owns Third World Press. James Early, currently an assistant secretary at the Smithsonian, was staff researcher, and Harold Burke documented on video, for historical purposes, much of the institute's work. I met Mr. Henderson through my friend E. Ethelbert Miller, who had graduated from Howard, and who, under the tutelage of the small man with the big mind, was establishing a Center for Afro-American Studies.

But I became his admirer and he my unofficial mentor when, at 20-something, two female writers and I, impressed with the District's rich literary history, decided to start a nonprofit organization - The Institute for the Preservation and Study of African American Writing; it was a mouthful even then, but we wanted our purpose clear. Mr. Henderson offered advice culled from his own experiences and struggles with his institute - the difficulty in finding funds; how writers often write but rarely study the legacy they inherit. And later, when my organization sought to produce a photo-literary exhibition on the Negritude Poets, Mr. Henderson helped me make what became my greatest find in Washington, D.C.: He led me to Leon Damas, who along with Leopold Senghor, former president of Senegal, and Aime Cesaire, former mayor of Martinique, founded the movement of Francophone black writers, who, like those in the Harlem Renaissance, celebrated their Africanness and their culture through their writings while challenging the standards of their colonizers. …

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