As everyone knows by now, Dr. John Hope Franklin has died. You can leave a message of condolence or thoughts about the man here. Everyone should take a moment to remember this African-American historian, writer and hero. Tayari Jones has a nice reminiscence on her blog.
Claudia over at The Bottom of Heaven hipped me to this blog :Literary Obama. I have been quite struck by the degree to which the Obamas have inspired the creation of artwork of all kinds. For my part, I've found myself thinking of Barack and Michelle as I work on my new novel, which features an African-American character who (like myself) was educated at a prep school. I know the similarities between my background and Michelle's are a big part of why I love her so much. But I've been wondering what other folks are thinking. Are you finding the Obamas popping up in your imaginative life? How? We'd love to know.
We started our blog roll--but like we keep saying, we don't know everything. Let us know blogs that deal with high-quality African-American literature that we ought to have on our roll. Throw 'em down there in the comments section. Thanks!
Since I wrote in TheRoot.com last year about why we should use the "L" word when describing black literary works, I've been thinking more about the need to name things. Do we really need to be so overt? No one ever sees signs that say, "literary white fiction", after all.
Yet, when I'm driving upstate with my family along a familiar highway, I often see those bright orange detour signs that let you know the road is under construction, that changes are going on, and that you have to turn here to get where you want to go.
That's how I think of black literary works these days -- under construction. It's not like it was, back in the day when the very fact that a black writer was published meant that a vetting process had occurred and the work was of a certain ambition and quality. Morrison, Walker, Baldwin, Bambara, et al,, had to be good or their books wouldn't be in print. Not so true now. All kinds of black books are getting published -- literary, yes, but also pulp fiction, genre fiction, popular and street. Some of that work is ambitious and some of it's not. So how does a reader inch through the pile up?
Labeling something as "black literary fiction/non-fiction" is a corrective, a temporary measure for the particular times that we're in. Just like on a highway, at some point the signs will be removed when the new thing is in place. Meanwhile signage helps. It helps the reader navigate a bookstore; it helps the bookstore promote certain kinds of work; it helps young African American writers aspire to have their own books in that section of the bookstore; it helps professors of AA lit discover new books they can add to their syllabi; and it helps publishers clarify what it is they're publishing. Voila! Everyone's expectations get managed.
I think of labeling as a navigational device, a GPS of black literary works.
RingShout itself is a road sign. We want to identify ambitious work by black writers so there's no mystery about what it is, no claim that it doesn't exist or can't be found, no excuse to let it linger on the shadowy back roads of our culture.
I certainly wish, as an emerging writer, I'd had some kind of tool to help me navigate my way -- nothing like a good road sign to get you where you want to go. Or need to be.
Here's the kind of thing that Ringshout hopes to inspire--it's all about us talking to each other!
Andy Johnson, an MFA student and instructor at the University of Alabama came up to me after our AWP panel. We talked a bit about ways to get the word out about our literature and about what Ringshout might accomplish. And then he took our conversation home and made it work! Here's what he posted on our Facebook page:
"After our conversation, I developed a syllabus for this course and submitted it. (no word yet) Here are my texts:(readings)
He still hasn't heard whether or not the course is approved but let's hope so--send encouragement to him via FB or leaving comments here or on his blog. And please use this to inspire you--what works by African-American writers would you want to teach/see taught?
This past Tuesday, I began volunteering as a writing coach at The Posse Foundation, a remarkable youth development group. I met 11 really terrific kids, almost all black and/or Hispanic, who are going to be the leaders of the next generation. What's so terrific about Posse is that they find kids who are potentially strong leaders, put them through a demanding application process and then at the end of it, working in concert with several colleges, provide the students with a full 4-year scholarship! I'm working with the Babson College posse. What's more, the kids attend as a cohort and spend the 9 months prior to college entrance building community and learning what it will take for them to succeed in college.
What does this have to do with Ringshout, you ask? Well, I believe that this kind of volunteering, using our writing skills, is the kind of thing that will let the next generation know that there are black writers out there, doing their thing and caring what happens to the next generation. It's a minimal commitment--6 sessions--but it has big payoffs. Posse Foundation has offices in New York, DC, Atlanta, LA and Boston. To learn more you can email firstname.lastname@example.org .
Founded in 2007 by a group of writers, editors and booksellers,
ringShout: A Place for Black Literature
is dedicated to recognizing, reclaiming and celebrating
excellence in contemporary literary fiction and nonfiction
by black writers in the United States.
Why the name ringShout?
One of the first dances created by
Africans brought to America as slaves
in the 1700s, the ring shout was a
sacred circle dance of salvation that enabled
a community to find perserverance,
provided solace and rejuvenation,
and sheltered many early nuances of
Africanist culture and practice. (Adapted from Thea Nerissa Barnes,
The Association of Dance of the African Diaspora Dictionary 2005-2006)
We hope that our ringShout can be the same for serious, skilled black writers creating ambitious fiction. We also want to assert our centrality to all facets of the American experience, literary and otherwise.