Trends Among Younger Contemporary Black Writers
Gen X at the NBWC
The National Black Writers Conference has offered a kind of sacred space within which African Americans gather to honor our literary heritage, celebrate contemporary voices from writers of African descent, and anticipate excellence from the younger generation of Black writers. I am of that younger generation, the generation that birthed Hip Hop, the Spoken Word and The Darkroom Collective, that developed new themes in literary fiction and non-fiction. I am of the generation that has had to reexamine what it means to be a person of color and write in an era when the country's black-white binary, which informed African American culture since the 1600s, has suddenly been altered by shades of brown.
In the early 1990s and 2000s, the conference was a place where we, then 20-something recent college grads, could affirm what was still a relatively new identity for us: Writer. Few Black writers have come from households where art was considered a legitimate occupation worthy of pursuit. In her July 2007 New York Times Book Review article, "Writers Like Me," Martha Southgate identifies what she calls "internal or cultural permission" to be an artist. Focusing on writers of African descent, Southgate goes on to state: "It's just plain harder to decide to be a writer if you don't have a financial cushion or a long cultural tradition of people going out on that bohemian limb." We Gen X writers, like our literary fore-parents, were overwhelmingly encouraged to get real jobs, where we could make real money. Just as we were beginning to lay claim to an identity that often made our biological parents shake their heads and tsk tsk, the National Black Writers Conference affirmed that, yes, people who look like us do write, that, to again borrow from Southgate, there are living, active and activist "writers like me."
The writers like us attending the conference to learn from elder writers were of Latina/o descent, of Arab descent. As the realm of what constituted blackness in America started to contain the shades of brown that fulfilled the promise of Pan-Africanism, the conference was there. The conference included us, all of us, across language and nationality and age, in one diverse community of Black writers. The relationships I've made that were first formed at the conference, most recently with writers like Tananarive Due and Valerie Boyd, remain key to my identity as a Black writer. To see writers like Sonia Sanchez, Ishmael Reed, and Amiri Baraka walking the halls of Medgar Evers over the years has helped me come-of-age as a reader and writer and celebrate the living heritage of African American literature.
I think the conference has helped my peers come-of-age, too. Certain themes have developed in the work of Gen X writers. For those of us of Caribbean descent, like Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, Dominicans Nelly Rosario and Junot Diaz, and Nuyorican poet Willie Perdomo, the themes of displacement and identity loss are prominent. Often, characters lose the specific cultural identity of the island homeland even as they struggle with otherness in The States. Passage over water, a passage that most often replicates the Middle Passage, dominates. Unlike characters in the work of older Black writers, like Paule Marshall's Avey in Praisesong for the Widow, or the women of Guadeloupe in Simone Schwartz Bart's Bridge of Beyond, characters in the work of younger writers very often do not safely cross over to the other side of the waters. Like the journalist in Danticat's short story "Children of the Sea," or Yunior in Diaz's collection Drown, characters from Gen X writers of Caribbean descent are often lost in the space in between, where they literally or figuratively drown.
Younger African American writers who grew up in this country are like their Caribbean-born peers in that they are revisiting specific eras or conditions of late 20th century Black life in their work. Writers like Tayari Jones, who revisits the Atlanta child murders in Leaving Alanta; Nathan McCall's exploration of gentrification and displacement in urban Black communities in Them; the end of the Motown Era in Bridgett Davis' Shifting Through Neutral; the Blaxploitation Era 70s and the Afrocentric 80s in Martha Southgate's Third Girl From the Left; or my own focus on the Crack Era in my debut novel Crystelle Mourning. The conference helped many of us to become better readers of our elders and literary ancestors and freed us to bear witness to our own contemporary experiences.
There has been, I think, a lesser-acknowledged theme in some of my contemporaries' work: a unique experience with this country's black-white binary in the Black Power 70s and Afrocentric 80s. Books like Danzy Senna's novel Caucasia and Cathy McKinley's memoir The Book of Sarahs examine the lives of bi-racial children who are either trans-racially adopted (as in The Books of Sarahs) or raised by the white parent (as in Caucasia). While rooted in the Tragic Mulatto tradition of work like Pauline Hopkins' 1901 to 1903 serial novels and Nella Larsen's Harlem Renaissance novels, these younger writers examine the traditional themes of disappearance, invisibility, and silencing in fresh ways. While racial unawareness or racial masking of the darker self confuses - and often kills - late 19th and early 20th century characters, among my peers the awareness of difference and the struggle to unmask the darker self fuels a more active - and activist - quest for the authentic self.
Younger writers are also exploring sexual orientation with bold honesty in collections like Bruce Morrow's Shade: An Anthology of Gay Writers of African Descent and McKinley's anthology of Black lesbian writers, Afrekete, both of which would make Audre Lorde and James Baldwin proud. Characters don't have to escape to Paris to enter Giovanni's Room anymore.
As younger Black writers trend toward openness and inclusion - of ethnic heritage, language, nationality, mixed racial backgrounds, and sexual orientation, they do so, very often, with what is sure to be called in the very near future the Hip Hop Aesthetic. We are the generation that birthed this new cultural expression of Blackness that is soundly rooted in the African drum but decidedly aimed forward. The infusion of new technology and new takes on old forms of Black cultural expression has created a beat box beat in much of our work. This aesthetic, which informs much of the work of my generation, has given us the New York Spoken Word Movement, which the conference acknowledged and welcomed years ago. How apt that the moderator of our panel, Dr Brenda Greene, is both Executive Director of the Medgar Evers College Center for Black Literature and mother of Hip Hop MC Talib Kweli of Black Star? And that Kanye West's mother, the late Dr. Donda West, was chair of the English Department at Chicago State University.
In the introductory essay of his 2000 anthology Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature, Kevin Powell states: "I would argue that there would be no major movement among young scribes had there been no hip-hop..." Kevin Powell has called the body of work produced by our generation The Word Movement. He goes on to say in that same essay, "...the Harlem Renaissance had the blues, the Black Arts Movement had jazz and the sounds of Motown, and the Word Movement has hip-hop."
This influence of Hip Hop culture should not, however, confuse the work of younger literary Black writers from around the world with writers of Urban Fiction. Indeed, Street Lit is one of the greatest challenges to my generation of more ambitious writers. While exceptional literary writers of the 1980s and early 1990s could count on sizable advances to help sustain them as they focused on craft, today ginormous checks are going to Urban Fiction Writers like Teri Woods and Relentless Aaron while the rest of us scramble for MFAs or, increasingly, the Ph.D. so we can get a gig, because we know we will not be able to support ourselves as writers. The need to teach to eat would not be bad at all were it not for the millions some Street Fiction writers have made selling poorly crafted prose. And literary writers can not ignore our Urban Fiction contemporaries, as their work dominates the shelves of the African American Lit sections in Barnes & Noble and Borders, so the casual browser can not happen across fine literary work from writers like Calvin Baker and Jeffery Renard Allen in these chains.
Younger writers are responding to this alarming trend. Please see, in addition to Martha Southgate's New York Times Book Review essay "Writers Like Me," Nick Chiles' January 4, 2006 New York Times Op-Ed piece "Their Eyes Were Reading Smut" and my own feature "The Naked Truth," which was just published in the Winter 2008 issue of The Crisis magazine. Bridgett Davis' article responding to the way all Black writers are lumped together - on the shelves and, too often, in the minds of readers - will run next Thursday on TheRoot.com, Skip Gates' new website. Search archives of Farai Chideya's NPR program "News and Notes" and the many Black blogs online for more of the public discourse on this challenge to our literary tradition.
Institutions like the National Black Writers Conference have also offered a literary counter-narrative to the story of Black pathology that is Urban Fiction. There are others. Malaika Adero has founded the UpSouth Festival, which takes place in Harlem every year, and I have helped form ringShout, a new organization dedicated to reclaiming Black literature and centering it in American cultural life. We launch ringShout at an of-site AWP event tonight. In the south, organizations like the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta and Tina McElroy Ansa's Sea Island Writers Retreat celebrate and nurture Black art. The south has also had the work of poet Kalamu Ya Salaam in pre-Katrina New Orleans, just as New York-based Cave Canem develops younger Black poets all over the country.
Because of these efforts, and the ongoing National Black Writers Conference, I think the future of Black Lit will include a decline of interest in Urban Fiction, a desire for more ambitious work, steady activism among younger writers, and, with the help of all of you, a growing, diverse readership for contemporary African American literary voices.