Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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News & Features » October 2013 » Johnny Temple interviews Brenda Greene, Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York

Johnny Temple interviews Brenda Greene, Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York

Photo credit: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Photo credit: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Brenda M. Greene is Professor of English and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York. Professor Greene’s research and scholarly work includes composition, African American literature, and multicultural literature. She is editor of The African Presence and Influence on the Cultures of the Americas (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), a book of essays that focus on the impact of Africa in the Americas from the perspectives of literature, language, music, dance, and psychology. She is coeditor of Resistance and Transformation: Conversations with Black Writers (Morton Books, 2010);  Meditations and Ascensions: Black Writers on Writing (Third World Press, 2008); Redefining Ourselves, Black Writers in the Nineties (Peter Lang Publishers, 1999); and Rethinking American Literature (National Council of Teachers of English, 1997). Greene contributes essays and book reviews to Neworld Review. She holds a PhD in English with a concentration in Education from New York University and has extensive essays, grants, book reviews, and presentations in English Studies. 

Can you name two books you have read in the past year that you love or that have inspired you in some way?

I have always loved Zora Neale Hurston and was inspired by Virginia Lynn Moylan’s book, Zora Neale Hurston’s Final Decade, published by the University Press of Florida. Moylan, an educator and independent scholar, convincingly writes of the complexities and paradoxes of the last ten years of Hurston’s life. In reading Moylan’s book I came to know Zora in a more personal way. I understood her deep sense of pride, her determination to celebrate the culture and stories of Black people throughout the African diaspora, and I was deeply disappointed by those who contributed to the misinformation about her and used unsubstantiated stories to sell newspapers. Zora was a spirit warrior and she refused to be dictated to, or to succumb to the mores of others.

Edwidge Danticat’s edited volume of Haiti Noir published by Akashic Books also moved me very deeply.  The stories were important gripping reminders of what many have gone through to overcome obstacles; of the violence faced by many on a daily basis; of the effects of decades of neglect; of how a people persist among extreme poverty and deep loss. There were times when I had to stop and put the book down and just reflect. The resilience of the Haitian peoples is amazing.

Do you have an all-time favorite book or author?

There are many writers I am drawn to, but if I have to say a favorite, it would be Toni Morrison. Morrison takes the time to craft language that is layered. The themes of her work contribute to our literature in significant ways. We come to know the interior lives of her characters and to understand the complexity of the stories of Blacks in America.

What was the primary motivation behind setting up the Center for Black Literature?

The primary motivation for establishing the Center for Black Literature was to find a way to institutionalize the National Black Writers Conference (NBWC). The NBWC originally brought together writers, scholars, literary professionals, students, and the general public to discuss the status of the literature produced by Black writers every several years. It is a continuation of the vision and manifestation of John O. Killens’s dream to host a Black Writers Conference every year in order to expose the general public to the literature created by Black writers; to provide a space and venue for writers to converse, share, and analyze the trends in literature produced by Black writers; and to identify the ways in which writers may improve their craft and promote and foster the development and practice of writing amongst potential and aspiring writers.

In 2002, I founded the Center for Black Literature, and it opened formally in 2003. In addition to hosting the National Black Writers Conference, we developed programs which brought the literary arts to students, developed writers’ workshops, seminars, literary salons, a radio show and a publishing program. We originally intended to host the NBWC every year and determined that we would host it every two years and host a symposium on alternate years. Thus, we host a three- or four-day conference in the even years, and a symposium focused on the work of one major writer in the odd years. The Center for Black Literature, which was modeled on the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University, is currently the only Center for Black Literature in the country that is devoted to providing knowledge about and honoring Black writers. We are proud to be celebrating ten years and to continue the tradition and legacy of the National Black Writers Conference; to serve as a voice, mecca, and resource for Black writers; and to study the impact of Black literature in our society. We provide a forum for ensuring that Black literary scholarship and conversations on Black literature are sustained and that the public is exposed to a broad range of Black writers, including the literature of those whose texts are not read because they are not viewed as commercially successful, though they are valuable and worthy of serious and careful reading and scholarship. We are the only Center for Black Literature still functioning in the country.

Are there one or two accomplishments of the Center that you are particularly proud of?

We have many programs at the Center, but one that we are particularly proud of is our Publication Program, which produces proceedings from the National Black Writers Conference; a literary journal, the Killens Review of Arts & Letters; and publications from our Elders Writers Workshop and student literary programs. We are also proud of the John Oliver Killens Reading Series, which began in the 2010–2011 academic year. Through the reading series, we sponsor readings and discussions with Black writers. It is a component of the John Oliver Killens Chair, for which we are seeking foundation support, and it is a testament to the legacy of John Oliver Killens. A major goal of this program is to provide venues for emerging as well as established writers and scholars to read and present their work. Finally, we still produce Writers on Writing, a radio show which airs on Sundays over WNYE, 91.5 FM. from 7:00 pm to 7:30 pm, and provides a forum for emerging as well as established writers to discuss their craft and Black literature from a variety of perspectives.

What are some of the initiatives that the Center has done with New York City public schools?

Our signature initiative with New York City public schools is our Re-Envisioning Our Lives through Literature Program (ROLL). Over the years, we have worked with students from grades three through high school.  Students in the project participate in one of several workshops: Dramatic Writing Workshop, Spoken Word Workshop, Children’s Literature Workshop, Creative Writing Workshop, or Using Lyrics and Letters to Define Manhood and Womanhood.

The goals of the project are to use the literary arts to improve students’ critical reading and writing skills; expose students and teachers to professional writers; provide students and teachers with opportunities to study and improve their writing craft; increase students’ knowledge of literature produced by Black writers; and provide students and teachers with opportunities to read and study diverse literature.

This year marks ten years of existence for the Center. Can you tell me a few of the things you are doing to celebrate?

Please click here to see a list of Tenth Anniversary Celebration Highlights that have been hosted since February 2013. 

Can you share anything special you have in store for the 2014 National Black Writers Conference?

The Honorary Chair for the Conference is Myrlie Evers-Williams. Our honorees for the conference include Maryse Condé, Quincy Troupe, Margaret Burroughs, and Walter Mosley.

The Conference theme of “Black Writers Reconstructing the Master Narrative” builds on previous conferences and takes into account the vast range of texts that Black writers throughout the diaspora are producing. Using this theme as the premise of the conference, we plan to hold panels and roundtables to explore the following topics:

Shifting Identities in Africa and the African Diaspora

Maintaining Cultural Legacies: The Black Arts and Umbra Movements

Race, Power, and Politics

Explorations into the Future: Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

Reconstructing the Historical Narrative

Saving Ourselves, Saving Our Communities

We will also host writing workshops on the following topics: Writing a Book Proposal; Creative Nonfiction; Poetry; and Fiction

Has the mission of the Center changed very much over the ten years of its existence?

The mission of the Center has remained constant over the ten years of its existence. Institutions representing and supporting the literature created by Black writers are disappearing in this country. The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, guided by the model of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University, is one such Center still in existence. Regrettably, the Gwendolyn Brooks Center has not had support for its programming. This is symbolic of the changing nature of support for institutions and organizations focused on the study of Black literature and African American studies. In what some deem as a post-racial society, the question of the need for a Center for Black Literature arises—that is, do we need a Center for Black Literature in a post-civil rights era and in a society that some have labeled as “post-racial”? I posit that we do.

We need Centers for Black Literature when the general public does not know the name or works of writers such as Toni Cade Bambara, a writer who the Center for Black Literature paid tribute to at the 2013 National Black Writers Conference Symposium, which was held at Medgar Evers College. When informed that we were going to honor Toni Cade Bambara, a colleague, who is an avid reader, immediately thought I was referring to Toni Morrison and later admitted that she had never heard of Toni Cade Bambara. Bambara (1939–1995), writer, social activist, educator, feminist, and filmmaker, is one of the earliest voices in contemporary African American literature whose work focused on issues of race and gender.

In his book, What Was African American Literature? (2012), Kenneth Warren argues that “the collective enterprise we now know as African American literature is of rather recent vintage.” He posits that African American literature emerged in response to state-sanctioned segregation and the civil rights era, and that as these eras ended, there was no longer a need to view African American literature through the lens of race. In short, Warren asks whether Black writers can write African American literature in 2013, or if Black writers are just writing literature.

If we were to take Warren’s argument as a premise, perhaps we would no longer need centers or institutes focused on Black literature, because what constitutes Black literature would no longer exist. In fact, it would follow that we should eliminate centers devoted to Black literature and instead expand the number of centers focused on the study of all literature from a global perspective. I vehemently disagree with this premise. The response to our work is evidence that we need centers focused on the literature created by Black writers throughout the African diaspora.

Does having an African American president in the White House change anything about the work you do? I imagine it doesn’t really change things, but I’m still curious to hear what you have to say about this.

Having an African American president in the White House affirms for us that we must continue to do the work we do.  Although President Obama has attempted to keep “race” out of his conversations and out of the issues he addresses, issues of race continue to surface in the public arena. We have much evidence that President Obama is viewed and continues to be characterized as the African American president.

The issue of race is implicit and part of a subtext in incidents such as the Trayvon Martin tragedy; the repeal of portions of the Voting Rights Act; and, some argue, in the recent government shutdown. Our country is still very much constituted by race and class, and as a result, we must continue to have conversations that include how race and class impact our lives and help to shape the literature produced by Black writers throughout the African diaspora. There is still a need for Black writers to tell their stories. There is still a need to hear their perspectives and to explore the interior lives of Black writers in literature. Issues related to race cannot be ignored in our society, and the issues that President Obama has had to contend with highlight this.

As a book publisher who is also a musician, I see connections between literature and music all over the place. Is music important to what you do at the Center?

The Center for Black Literature is committed to supporting artists. And our artists—writers, visual artists, performance artists, musicians, poets, and playwrights—are those who provide voice through their art, aesthetically and culturally and through their heightening of political and social issues. Thus, we incorporate music and other art forms into all of our Center programming. We view artists as visionaries and as transformative agents who help to underscore and raise societal awareness of the use of art as a tool of liberation.

Posted: Oct 29, 2013

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