Event Recap: National Black Writers’ Conference 2012

I went to this year’s National Black Writers’ Conference specifically for the panel entitled Migration and Cultural Memory in the Literature of Black Writers

I was late to the panel and though I did miss some stuff, I think I got the goods:

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond on migration:
We often talk about black migration in a physical sense (Africa -> the West; southern US -> northern US; the West -> Africa) but we also migrate in a mental sense. We migrate daily from our communities to [white] institutions (schools, workplaces, etc.), where we have to adjust the way we speak, dress, etc. As writers, however we migrate, be it mental or physical, it ends up on the page.

She also talked about the contradictory images of Africa she received growing up in the U.S. She would see her parents’ very cosmopolitan photos from Ghana and hear her parents talking about how wonderful Ghana is (though not discussing why they are in the States if Ghana is so wonderful) and at the same time she would see images of “starving Ethiopians” and various people trying to save them. Though I’m a few years younger than Nana Ekua, I completely relate. My mother has the awesome images of herself and her friends from before she emigrated from Ghana to the U.S. but outside of my family, I only received very tragic images of Africa. I’m sure this is something a lot of black people throughout the diaspora can relate to.

A moment of elitism during the panel:
During the Q&A, a man stood up, noted that he’d published several books and asked the panelists for their advice to up and coming writers. One panelist caused a little controversy when she responded that everyone was claiming to be a writer and the importance was in the study — writers need to study and develop technique. She saw the increasing number of self-published works as pollution. Ouch. The man who initiated the discussion took it personally which I understand. I agree that study and technique are important but I have no beef with the self-publishing world or with the supposed universal claim of “writer.”

A fact I was unaware of:
One of the last events of Saturday’s programming was a conversation between Esther Armah and Tavis Smiley. In a story Tavis was sharing about Toni Morrison he said that she didn’t get started until she was 39 or 40. I searched the internet for her writing history, when I got home, and discovered that her first novel was published when she was about 40 years old. I had no idea! but it’s inspiring.

For images of the conference, check the NBWC Facebook Page. And here is another short recap of the conference.

Event Recap: Artists at Work: An Afternoon with Edwidge Danticat

Last weekend, Philadelphia’s Art Sanctuary hosted Artists at Work: An Afternoon with Edwidge Danticat. The event featured a panel discussion moderated by April Silver with panelists: spoken word artist Michelle Myers, visual artist James E. Claibrone Jr., bassist Jonathan Michel, and writer Edwidge Danticat.

A few insights I gained from the panel:

On speaking for/with a community:

I see myself as speaking as part of a chorus — the more voices that join, the more enlightened we are… saying that I am the voice of a non-monolithic, complex people silences other people’s voices. – Edwidge

Join the chorus. Don’t allow anyone to silence your voice and don’t attempt to silence anyone else’s voice.

When people lay claim, they sometimes want to dictate what I write about… – Michelle

I get excited when someone is able to put my thoughts into words but then sometimes I have expectations for them to continue to do this. It’s an unfair burden for artists.

We internalize negative images of ourselves [from popular media] and then celebrate it… [We need] to invest in and create righteous art/images – James

*a lightbulb moment for me*. When James made this comment I realized that countering negative stereotypes is not just about being accepted by the “other” but also about not internalizing negativity.

Advice to “aspiring” artists on the importance of study and discipline:

Study is paradigm to what we do…discipline comes from the love of what we do… Learn from the elders; we are not innovators, we are continuing the tradition – Jonathan Michel

I love Jonathan for this comment because it made me realize that my writing is bigger than me. Writing is something that comes naturally to me and I indulge in it as a form of therapy. But if I’m going to acknowledge writing as my calling then I need to recognize the duty that comes with it. *a true lesson in humility*

As a follow-up to Jonathan’s comment on learning from the elders: Study their grace, not just their work, but the way their personhood embodies their work. – Edwidge

This was an important message for me to hear. Though my name means grace I’ve let my ego and my insecurities create a version of myself that is anything but graceful and disconnected form my work.

This was originally posted on The G is for Grace