From Part Two": The Carolina African American Writers'
Collective (To the memory and honor of Gwendolyn Brooks)
Writers have long congregated to share and critique their work
in ways that conform to present notions of "writers' workshops."
Frequently, these gatherings have been social - writer-friends
joining for support, encouragement and a drink. The feuds evolve,
the former friends move on.
are also examples of writing communities, like other sorts of
artificial cohorts, that coalesce around a central principle
or ideology. African American literary societies historically
have straddled both of these models, the social and the socially-committed.
societies, which date back to the early to mid-nineteenth century,
were dedicated above all to the principle of self-education.
Their primary purposes were to make literature available to
members, to encourage reading and thinking about literature,
and to generate writing by members.
Carolina African American Writers' Collective is an example
of this tradition.
in 1995 by Executive Director Lenard D. Moore, the roots of
the organization were in necessity, circumstances not terribly
different from those of a century and a half earlier. The isolation
felt by early members such as Moore, Janice W. Hodges and Beverly
Fields Burnette was based on the sliver of representation of
black writers in the majority of existing writers' groups.
situation was and is not much better in the academy, where proportionately
few black students enroll in creative writing classes in highly
ranked programs. HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities)
have traditionally offered uncertain support, and occasional
antagonism, to writers and students of writing.
alienation felt by the CAAWC members was racial on the surface,
but race is not just race. Race is culture. Race is experience.
Race is language. Race is modes of expression. Race is history.
In the words of early member Gina Streaty: "In regular
[read: predominately white] collectives, "we" are
usually the welcomed, but silent voice. Our works are generally
misunderstood, under-appreciated, and often harshly critiqued
for the simple reason that "they" cannot relate to
it." (Interview, 1999 October)
find a similar perspective in W.E.B. Du Bois's essay "Of
the Training of Black Men," from The Souls of Black Folk,
written in defense of black colleges. Du Bois argues that possession
of culture for African Americans must include their own experience
in addition to providing access to classical signposts of civilization.
also discusses the need for a black writers' collective in terms
of positive identification. Social and stylistic exclusion must
be transformed into a self-determined inclusion: "I believe
that any ethnic group would have some things that are culturally
specific to their community which might be reflected in the
structure and function of the literary and cultural organizations."
(Interview, 1999 October)
that the CAAWC was founded based upon principles of social and
potentially aesthetic solidarity, the question might be raised
as to whether another form of pressure might be exerted to produce
writing with a recognizable stamp. This is a danger facing all
writers' collectives both within and outside of the academy.
might be a particular threat to a gathering that is a self-designated
"collective," whose operating principles value the
group as the means of best nurturing the individual. According
to Moore: "I believe in functioning as a cooperative group
of writers rather than functioning as separate individuals.
Moreover, I feel that "Collective" implies that CAAWC
members are working towards similar goals for the organization
as well as for their own literary work." (Interview, 1999
at the very least hovers on the margins of such thinking.
then we move from 1995 to the current issue of Poetrybay, which
offers proof that the frequently-cited "family" atmosphere
of the CAAWC has provided a sociological model that, in practice,
has mirrored the developmental progression from childhood to
adulthood within a healthy family unit. First you must feel
protected; then you can fly.
writers' collectives provide safe harbor, this is an undeniable
good. But if they are sufficiently supple to provide for genuine
individuation, and the growth of participants into mature writers
with unique voices, their value exponentially increases. Based
upon the poems included here, the latter clearly applies.
own gifts as a poet draw heavily on his rural past, nature as
a dominant theme, and his interest in and mastery of Japanese
literary forms. As a result, as Executive Director of the CAAWC
(sometimes referred to as "the chief" of the tribe
by members), he has modeled a stress on verbal compression,
the importance of the homely, and pinpoint imagery. This training
is evident in a great deal of the writing produced by CAAWC
writers: we see it in the Poetrybay portfolio to a person.
Moore has brought something more, as indicated by the magnitude
of accomplishments among members from the mid-nineties to the
present, but particularly in the past year. This is reflected
in the enormous list of prestigious literary awards, fellowships,
recognitions and publications earned recently by CAAWC members.
The collective has evolved from a technical training ground
to a veritable "university" for serious writers ready
to progress to a solid level of undeniable professionalism.
important as the honors - perhaps even more so - the poems contained
here by Christian A. Campbell, L. Teresa Church, Candice M.
Jenkins, Lenard D. Moore, Mendi Lewis Obadike and Evie Shockley
demonstrate a spiraling level of diversity in form and content
compared to poetry written by members in the early years of
the group. One especially notes a dramatic surge in literary
experimentalism, bold diffuseness of structure, and surreal
poets draw on an obviously widening range of influences, exemplifying
touchstones of "blackness," touchstones of humanity,
touchstones of the writerly.
the foundations of accepting a fundamental fact - that of being
a black writer - we see a tremendous development of individuality
in the chorus of voices whose unique visions have been nurtured
by the CAAWC experience.
Moore puts it, looking back at the CAAWC legacy: "I think
the poetry reflects the goals of the Collective. I also think
that the poetry depicts the various experiences. And yet, I
think that the CAAWC's members' voices are harmonious."
(Interview, 1999 October)
Bois would be proud, but not surprised.
was featured on Sunday, March 25, 2001 (2:00 PM) at The Virginia
Festival of the Book (The University of Virginia) in Charlottesville,
Virginia. States Lenard Moore: "I plan to edit a CAAWC
anthology of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Although we usually
autograph the several anthologies that have featured CAAWC as
well as our own books and chapbooks, we need a CAAWC anthology.
Our large audiences have recently been asking
about books with only CAAWC works. And yet, I have been planning
to edit an anthology of our works for about 3 years." The
following CAAWC members read at the VA Book Festival: Angela
Belcher,Victor E. Blue, Beverly Fields Burnette, Chezia Thompson
Cager, Christian A. Campbell, L. Teresa Church, Paula White
Jackson, Candice M. Jenkins, Patricia A. Johnson, Lenard D.
Moore, Gaye L. Newton, Mendi Lewis Obadike, Wendell W. Ottley
III, Odessa Shaw, Evie Shockley, Gina M. Streaty.