Dr. Brenda Greene, founder of the Center for Black Literature (302871)
Credit: Contributed

The naked divisiveness of the past few years has shown us the importance of tools that can bridge cultural divides; one of those is literature. It’s often said that literature is important because it allows us to learn about, and empathize with, people whom we see as different from us.

For 35 years the National Black Writers Conference has sought to bring stories from Black writers to the fore, and to stress the importance of amplifying the value of the work by reading and discussing them. Further, the value of the work has a halo effect of sorts, on the community from which it came.

Authors Edwidge Danticat, Donna Hill and others will speak at the upcoming National Black Writers Conference Biennial Symposium (NBWC2021, held March 27 via Zoom, presented by the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY in Brooklyn. The event will begin at 11 a.m. and is open to the public.

This year’s conference will honor trailblazers Paule Marshall and John A. Williams, who wrote the seminal works “Brown Girl,” “Brownstones” and “The Man Who Cried I Am,” respectively. The one-day virtual event is titled They Cried I Am: The Life and Work of Paule Marshall and John A. Williams, Unsung Black Literary Voices. Both writers contributed work that centered the African American experience during a time when those narratives were not common.

Danticat, who wrote a well-known piece about Marshall for The New Yorker in the wake of her passing in 2019, was mentored by fellow Caribbean-American Marshall as a young writer. “She had a special relationship with Ms. Marshall; she understands, and can speak to the things Paule Marshall wrote about,” said Dr. Brenda Greene, founder of the Center for Black Literature.

Of the overall significance of Marshall and Williams, Dr. Greene stated she believes they broadened the perception of what it means to be a Black writer. “They expanded the boundaries of what it means to be a Black writer, the boundaries of a Caribbean writer, of an African writer, of an American writer. Unfortunately, they’re not necessarily in the canon of Western or American literature.”

Though they remain unsung, Dr. Greene feels their impact continues to be felt, as literature from all aspects of the Black diaspora is increasingly accepted into new spaces. “We are moving in and out of each other’s geographical spaces, and worlds. That Black British writer may not have the exact same issues, but they have similar issues and are writing about them from their perspectives.” Still, Dr. Greene acknowledges that mainstream literary circles (and the Black community to an extent) still tend to overlook the value of the work Marshall and Williams created.

In its obituary for John A. Williams the New York Times described him as “underrated.” In the body of the article, he’s referred to as, “a writer who, despite the constant comparisons to Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, had been denied the credit due his talent.” It’s this sentiment that drove Dr. Greene to honor him and his work at this year’s symposium.

A survey of Williams’ work gives a hint as to the reluctance to allow him a place in the literary canon. He wrote both fiction and non-fiction, including a controversial biography of Martin Luther King. Though his protagonists were Black, he sometimes put these characters in places the decision-makers were likely not comfortable with them being, such as in a concentration camp in Europe during WWII. A European correspondent for Newsweek for many years, Williams also did some travel writing, a milieu then seen as belonging to upper middle class white men and women. His overt insistence that Black people and Black identity was not a monolith perhaps worked against him in a world just as insistent on putting people and identities comfortably in neat, separate boxes.

Via email, Danticat expressed her hope that people would continue reading Marshall. “Those who are less familiar with it have ahead of them the joy of discovering her profound and indelible work. And those of us who already know, and have been touched by her words, are blessed to keep rediscovering it.”

Marshall’s voice reflected the evolution of America into the great mosaic. Her work bridged the experiences of two distinct diasporic regions: America and the Caribbean. Stated Danticat, “Recently while rereading perhaps her best known novel, ‘Praisesong for the Widow,’ I realized how deeply she wanted to connect us all via rituals like the southern American church tradition of the ring shout and a lavet tèt vodou cleansing ceremony in one of the Grenadine islands, Carriacou. Both in her work and in her personal life, she was a bridge.”

Scholars and writers will offer academic and personal perspectives, as well as dramatic readings of Marshall’s and Williams’ work through panels, roundtables and dramatic presentations. Some of the confirmed presenters include Dr. Carole Boyce-Davies, Wallace Ford, Keith Gilyard, Maryemma Graham, Michael Anthony Green, Lawrence P. Jackson, Evan Marshall, Ishmael Reed, Linda Villarosa and Mary Helen Washington.

Writer, playwright and actress Liza Jessie Peterson will also be featured at the conference. Stated Dr. Greene, “Liza is a wonderful actress who is very politically and socially conscious around the issues we are facing. Her connection to young people, I think it’s really important. Part of what we try to do at the conference is reach across the generations and make sure our young people know who these writers are.”

For more information, please call or visit: https://nbwcbiennial2021.eventbrite.com. Inquiries may also be directed to 718-804-8883 or to writers@mec.cuny.edu.