For 10 years, the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College (MEC) has been host to the biannual National Black Writers Conference (NBWC). Brenda Greene, the center’s executive director, says they share a mission of expansion and inclusion.
At the 2011 National Black Writers Conference: (seated, left to right) Sonia Sanchez, Toni Morrison, Kamau Brathwaite and Amiri Baraka. (Standing, left to right) Richard Jones, Susan Taylor, Marcia White, Brenda Greene and Cornel West.
“We are expanding the master narrative of who is considered to be essential reading,” she told Clarion. “There’s not enough known about the broad range of literature produced by black writers.”
Held biannually since 2000, the National Black Writers Conference features writers from across the worldwide African diaspora. This year’s gathering will take place March 27-30 and participants will include Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, crime fiction writer Walter Mosley and the poet and editor Quincy Troupe. French-language historical novelist Maryse Condé and the late Margaret Burroughs, co-founder of Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History, will be honored as well. It all happens the weekend that the Center for Black Literature celebrates its 10th anniversary.
The work of these writers will be a major theme as faculty, independent scholars and students present papers at this year’s conference, the 12th since it was first organized in 1986.
Panels and roundtable topics include the state of poetry from an African-American perspective; science fiction and fantasy; shifting identities in Africa and the African diaspora; the state of publishing in 2014; and a contemporary look at historical narrative. Several workshops will also be offered on creative nonfiction, how to put together a book proposal and more. Writers, academics and lovers of literature are all welcome, says Greene. The last conference drew 1,600 people, including 500 young people from grades three through twelve.
‘It’s a Conversation’
“It’s a conversation. It’s a dialogue,” emphasizes Greene. Writers at the event know to “check their egos at the door,” she said, because the emphasis is on interaction and creating an event that is accessible to a wide range of participants.
On March 29, the Center for Black Literature will celebrate its 10th anniversary at a gala that is open to the public, as well as at a private reception.
In addition to staging the National Black Writers Conference, the center also works extensively with local public schools and with institutions like the Brooklyn Public Library and the Schomburg Center to promote interest in black literature.
For Greene, who grew up reading the likes of Emily Dickinson and the Brontë sisters, literature has always been something she loved. However, she was not exposed to black writers until she won a scholarship to attend New York University during the late 1960s and became active in the Black Arts Movement, which included writers such as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, Quincy Troupe and others. The experience of having been cut off from African-American cultural heritage during most of her education inspired Greene’s future work.
“I made a conscious decision to not have students go through what I went through,” said Greene, who began teaching at Medgar Evers in 1980 and helped organize the first National Black Writers Conference in 1986 with the novelist John Oliver Killens.
Killens died of cancer in 1987, but the conferences continued in 1988, 1991, 1996, 2000 and 2002 before settling into a regular biannual schedule under the aegis of the Center for Black Literature.
This year’s conference will be preceded by several noteworthy events. On February 19, at the CUNY Graduate Center, Columbia professor Farah Jasmine Griffin will discuss her new book on women artists in Harlem during World War II with Robert Reid-Pharr, distinguished professor of English and American Studies and director of the Graduate Center’s Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean (IRADAC). At MEC, there will be a NBWC Youth Day Program on March 21, and a symposium on the poet Audre Lorde on March 22.
While MEC provides a home for the NBWC (and admission for MEC students is free), Greene emphasized that the literary feast offered by the National Black Writers Conference isn’t just for Medgar Evers faculty, staff and students.
“We want people to know this is a conference for everyone,” Greene said. “And we really want people from across CUNY to come.”