Friday, October 2, 2020

More Black Southern Voices: All the Songs We Sing

All the Songs We Sing: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Carolina African American Writers' Collective (2020), edited by Lenard D. Moore, wonderfully contributes to the rich tradition of African American anthologies and also to the body of work focusing on the South. 

There's nothing easy or ordinary about establishing a longstanding writers' group of any kind. So think of the significance of a southern-based collective comprised of Black writers. Moore and his collaborators have been meeting, workshopping, organizing, presenting, and publishing together and in relation to each other for over two decades.   

All the Songs We Sing includes poems, short fiction, and nonfiction from approximately forty contributors, including Valjeanne Jeffers, Patricia A. Johnson, Raina J. León, Fred Joiner, L. Lamar Wilson, and many others. They write about family, food, African American culture, and a range of prominent figures such as Harriet Tubman, Emmett Till, John Coltrane, and Michelle Obama. They write haiku, rhymed and free verse, and sonnets.  

There are quite a few themes running through the works here, and memory is one that caught my attention, as I noticed several different poet reflecting on childhood and lessons they gained from mothers and fathers. Then, there are those poems about cultural and historical figures that represent people as well as places.  

Although there are some connecting threads, the writers are nonetheless diverse in their approaches and subjects. I was already familiar with writings by celeste doaks, Camille T. Dungy, Moore, and Evie Shockley. Just those four writers have produced a body of varied works. Bringing them together with dozens of other writers together in one anthology highlights their distinctiveness and identity as a collective. 

Given my ongoing work to chart histories of African American artists, I was especially interested in L. Teresa Church's "A Literary Mission Accomplished: Twenty-Five Years of the Carolina African American Writers' Collective" (CAAWC), included in the book. The article, by one of the group's longtime members, offers a reflection on Moore's efforts to initiate the formation of the collective. Church also points out benefits of the Collective: "it unified a community of writers who previously did not know of each other's work."

Members benefitted from having others read and actively discuss their works. They received guidance on how to improve their writings and where to submit what they produced. Church notes that more than seventy writers, from teenagers to senior citizens, have acquired lifetime membership in the group, with fifteen to twenty members having participated in the workshops initially held at Moore's home in the 1990s.   

Church's article is a good companion to Moore's "Reflection on the Carolina African American Writers' Collective" (1996), as well as a series of writings that Lauri Scheyer has published on the group, including one included in this anthology entitled "'Report from Part Three': The Legacy of the Carolina African American Writers' Collective." Scheyer previously published parts one and two in 1999 and 2001, respectively. 

We certainly do not have enough accounts about the experiences and benefits of participants involved with Black writer groups such as the CAAWC, the Eugene B. Redmond Writers' Club, and Cave Canem, to name just a few. More discussions about the activities conducted by such groups over the course of many years can expand our understanding of Black literary history in new, important ways. 

As I read All the Songs We Sing, I thought of Black South Voices: An Anthology of Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction, and Critical Essays (1992) edited by John Oliver Killens and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (2007) edited by Nikky Finney. Moore's All the Songs We Sing complements and extends those collections by offering an update and project that emerges from a North Carolina collective.

Taken together, those anthologies point to the southern dimensions of African American literature. The editors of the collections reveal the possibility and results of assembling a range of Black writers from a common region. Such projects are important since southern Black writing and writers are so routinely overlooked and because we learn so much from the compositions. 

Notably, the titles of the three collections highlight sound and resonance: voices, ringing ear, the songs we sing. Orality and musicality are apparently at the core of how the editors define the literary art they showcase. All the Songs We Sing presents and signals a chorus of more Black southern voices. 

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