Friday, November 13, 2009

Organizing Lessons from a Literature Conference

(l to r: Maryemma Graham, Alice Randall, and Houston Baker)

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the “Celebrating Contemporary African American Literature: the Novel Since 1988" at Pennsylvania State University.

The conference participants covered a variety of topics, including law, Africanisms, hip hop, identity, pedagogy, satire, aesthetics, and sexuality. The conference also included keynote presentations by novelists Alice Randall and Mat Johnson and distinguished scholars Houston Baker and Maryemma Graham.

The diversity and depth of subject matter was important and would perhaps require a more detailed post for me to present with any justice. Fortunately, a book or two will likely emerge from the proceedings, which will provide us with a clearer sense of the ideas presented and shared at the conference.

(l to r: Mat Johnson, Aldon Nielsen, Shirley Moody)

But beyond the information that was gained from the panels, the conference confirmed my belief that Lovalerie King is one of our major organizers for projects concerning African American literature. She has an impressive record of scholarly writings, yes, but what is also remarkable is her ability to bring together a wide range of folks who think seriously about black literature. Her knowledge of the scholarly field and of black social terrains is such that she has an active understanding of who to bring together for vibrant conversations about African American literature.

Lovalerie King is actually one among a few other organizers, including Maryemma Graham, Joanne Gabbin, and Wilfred Samuels, who have been responsible for bringing together a large number of artists and scholars in order to deepen our appreciation for black literary art in recent years. Their organizational efforts provide some useful and illuminating models, especially for those of us interested in bringing together large numbers of people to have productive conversations about race, culture, art, and all kinds of other subjects.

Anyway, here are a few lessons I picked up observing King’s organizational work:

1. Have a crew. In this case, Lovalerie King’s vital collaborator was Shirley Moody. Folks like Linda Seltzer, Aldon Nielsen, various other colleagues, and a talented crew of graduate students also contributed.

2. Be a connector, and if possible be a visionary connector. Who would’ve envisioned bringing together folks like Houston Baker and Dana Williams from Vanderbilt and Howard University, respectively, Karla Holloway and Richard Schur from Duke and Drury, respectively, or Evie Shockley and Eve Dunbar from Rutgers and Vassar, respectively for a single conference? Or, what about bringing novelists Alice Randall, Mat Johnson, and Martha Southgate? King’s a visionary connector. (There’s a longer post coming, too, about how I’ve borrowed Maryemma Graham’s wonderful approaches to getting folks connected.)

3. Develop institutional support and connections. Pennsylvania State University provided the bulk of the crucial financial support. And of course, earning and building support for humanities projects these days is no easy task.

4. Produce continuous follow-through. This recent conference was the result of a previous conference King co-organized and the result of her collaborations with folks from all over. That conference and those projects were the results of other previous ones. It’s all about the continuous follow-through.

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