Thursday, March 9, 2017

Black women scholar-organizers and literary gatherings

Maryemma Graham reads volume by Tyehimba Jess at NEH Institute on black poetry that she directed in 2015.

When and if we write a history of scholarly gatherings showcasing African American literary art and studies, we'll notice that a relatively small, core group of black women scholars have had a a disproportionately large impact. Wouldn't it be hard, if not impossible to think about conferences and workshops convened over the last 25 years without the leadership of, say, Joanne Gabbin, Maryemma Graham, Joycelyn Moody, Brenda M. Greene, Carolyn Denard, Donna Akiba Harper and a few others?

In 1994, 2004, and 2014, Joanna Gabbin convened the Furious Flower Conferences at James Madison University, highlighting African American poetry. In 2010, Gabbin and Nikki Giovanni hosted a memorial gathering "73 Poems for 73 Years: Celebrating the Life of Lucille Clifton" at James Madison. In October 2012, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, and Gabbin hosted "Sheer Good Fortune: Celebrating Toni Morrison" at Virginia Tech. Over the last 12 years alone, Gabbin's Furious Flower Center has hosted more than 30 poets from across the country for readings. 

Between 1985 and 2015, Graham applied for and received National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funding for more than a dozen major projects. She led an international centennial symposium on Langston Hughes at the University of Kansas in 2002, and a national poetry reading project on Hughes in 2003. She was the organizer for NEH institutes on black poetry in 2013, and then in 2015. Graham is one of the relatively few major scholars in the field who regularly organizes African American literature projects that include large numbers of secondary school teachers.  

Joycelyn Moody, founder of the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute, listens to summer Fellows, 2015.

A little over ten years ago, Joycelyn Moody conceived of and began hosting an annual African American Studies Symposium at the University of San Antonio at Texas. Moody and her co-committee members will convene the 10th symposium in the series in April. Moody didn't stop with a symposium. In June, she'll welcome the 8th summer of the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute (AALCI), which she founded in 2010. The AALCI is a black studies summer seminar for college students from across the country (I cover teaching duties for the Institute).

In the late 1960s, John Oliver Killens organized important black writer conferences at Fisk University, and he organized a similar series of conferences at Howard University in the 1970s. He initiated the idea for the National Black Writers Conferences in New York in 1986, but we have to say that Brenda M. Greene has been the key force in extending those conferences over the last 15 to 20 years. The National Black Writers Conference is one of the largest, longest-running continuous conferences of its kind. Later this month, Greene will lead the conference's centennial celebration of Gwendolyn Brooks.  

What about black author societies? Well, the Toni Morrison Society (TMS), founded by Carolyn Denard, is our strongest, most active African American author group. Denard gives all the credit to the talented and dedicated membership of the TMS for all they've done, including the inventive Bench by the Road Project. At the same time, Denard has been a vital advocate and leading voice for the group.     

There are others. Think about Lovalerie King's hosting and co-hosting a series of large conferences on African American literature at Pennsylvania State University, as well as an NEH institute on contemporary African American literature. Then there's also all the work Dana Williams has done with the College Language Association (CLA). She also recently hosted an NEH-funded digital humanities initiative.

Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper takes photographs at the Toni Morrison Society (TMS) conference in NYC, in 2016.

Somewhere in this narrative you'd want to insert Donna Akiba Harper. As I've noted before, Harper  is one of our great cultural witnesses. In addition to participating on planning committees for many scholarly gatherings in the field, she's been producing a tremendous visual chronicle of the many events she's attended.

For whatever reason, the organizing and chronicling that I've mentioned above doesn't fully show up in scholarly articles and graduate seminars. It's like...if a conference takes place in a forest and no one hears it, then....?   That kind of thing.

It's tempting to ascribe the organizational output of Denard, Gabbin, Graham, Greene, Harper, and Moody to gender. That explains some, but not enough. The truth is, black women scholars before and after them have not produced so much over such a long period of time. So it's gendered and generational. Ok, yet, it's also field and commitment based. I mean, how many leading black scholars in other areas have done as much outreach to secondary school teachers as Graham? Who has chronicled events and activities with the thoroughness of a Harper? Outside of conferences sponsored by well-funded scholarly associations, how many more people run continuous gatherings like Moody and Greene?

Donna Akiba Harper at the Toni Morrison Society Conference 
Lovalerie King, Maryemma Graham, and the states of the field  
A Notebook on African American Literary Studies

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