Despite the proliferation of Black authors and titles in today’s marketplace, many look to literary journals to carry on the torch for the written wordBy Kendra HamiltonImagine the African American writer as an endangered species. Impossible, you might say — not with Oprah’s smile selling magazines and books by the millions; not with bookstore shelves overflowing with African American titles, from racy “street life” shoot-’em-ups to “tough love” romance novels to “homegirl” empowerment romps and beyond.
But let’s say you’ve done your African American spiritual affirmations for the day and you’re bored, for the time being, with romance. You’re looking for something different, deeper — maybe a travelogue by a young Black scholar on her first visit to Cuba or a photo essay about the craze for bellbottoms and James Brown in 1960s Bamako, Mali; perhaps a short story with writing that simply sings off the page or an experimental poem on the deeper cultural significance of the film “Carmen Jones.”
You won’t find that kind of writing in the latest issue of The Nation or The New Yorker. Mainstream magazines offer only a handful of African American subjects and voices, and even Black-interest publications like Ebony and Savoy have no discernible commitment to literature.
But these were precisely the topics on the bill of fare in recent issues of Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts & Letters, the African American Review, Obsidian III and Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire. Indeed, in these Black literary journals, one can find an incredible range of Black voices from across the Diaspora — from the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America and even Europe — exploring the lives, experiences, traditions and literatures of people of African descent.
The African American Review, for example, just devoted a double issue to Amiri Baraka, that firebrand of the Beat and Black arts movements who was named — then quickly removed — as poet laureate of New Jersey after writing a controversial poem on the events of Sept. 11. Callaloo, meanwhile, has been doing special issues — chock full of interviews, fiction, poetry and photographs — on “Black masculinities,” the Black German experience, Cuba and the Afro-Mestizo communities of Mexico.
Obsidian III recently finished a special focus on children’s literature, and the upcoming issue features award-winning poet and culture worker Nikky Finney, who is also an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky. Meanwhile, the most recent offering from Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire is a bilingual issue, with articles in French on Afrocentrism and the 19th-century Black nationalist Martin R. Delany, plus an interview with the famed poet Yusef Komunyakaa.
“I love literary journals. I always have,” says Marie D. Brown, dubbed the “godmother” of Black books by critic and novelist Nelson George. “In fact, I’m on the board of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, have been for years. And one of the reasons I continue to participate is that I know how important these particular literary outlets are for writers — particularly at this time, because there are fewer and fewer outlets in mainstream publishing for literary writers.”
Brown has seen many journals come and go, both in her years at Doubleday, where she started in 1967, and after she founded her successful literary agency, Marie Brown & Associates, in 1984. She says these are perilous times for quality African American writing. And many other observers agree.
For one, serious writing is getting harder to find in this country. While the U.K.-based literary magazine Granta racks up rave reviews and impressive circulation figures here and at home — 70,000 this year, according to London’s Daily Telegraph — its American counterparts are facing much bleaker times.
Poetry, the most successful of the American literary journals, has a fraction of Granta’s circulation: 13,000, according to sources at the journal. But many American journals have circulations that are only a fraction of that figure: 200 to 500, notes Dr. Joe Weixlmann, longtime editor of the African American Review.
Weixlmann’s journal reached a peak circulation of 5,000 nearly a decade ago — when it had a grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund and could share mailing lists with American Visions and Emerge. Since the demise of both of those general interest magazines, circulation has dipped back to around 2,000, Weixlmann says.
Most literary journals have similar tales to tell, observers say: A traditional source of funding fails, or other distribution networks dry up due to the loss of independent bookstores. Meanwhile, the large chains that have taken the place of the independents demand 5,000-10,000 copies before they’ll even agree to carry the titles — and no guaranteed profit comes from the arrangement. It’s a threshold that very few journals can meet.
The upshot is that editors can’t get their content to the audience. But consolidation in the bookstore trade is only part of the reason why. The other part is a major change in the way that the publishing companies do business.
“I go all the way back to the ’60s,” says Brown, “and there was great diversity in publishing. There was great demand for African American writers, Caribbean writers, African writers. You had Chester Himes (writing mysteries) and Frank Yerby (writing romances), but you also had Ernest Gaines, John A. Williams, James Baldwin, Maya (Angelou), Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Toni Cade Bambara, all these writers and many, many more.”
Shockingly, Brown adds, ” I doubt very seriously that many of them could get published now.”
Trade editors are out beating the bushes for the self-published and self-promoted authors such as E. Lynn Harris and Eric Jerome Dickey. The thinking is that these authors can be relied upon to rack up “$60,000, $80,000, $100,000 in sales,” says Brown; thus, they’re being wooed with six-figure advances.
This is not terribly surprising, comments Dr. Charles Rowell, the founding editor of Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters. “The commercial publishing houses are literally that: commercial centers. They want things that sell. Let me assure you they are not interested in art,” Rowell says.
Brown’s assessment is less harsh, but her conclusions are similar.
“I come across many, many people who are writing beautifully and who would have been published in a different time, but they’re not being given consideration. And it’s heart-breaking — it’s so hard to keep their spirits up, and it’s even harder to find (book) editors who are not solely focused on ghetto life and urban fiction,” Brown adds.
For such writers, the African American literary journal is virtually the last remaining refuge.A historical view
Things weren’t always this way.
There was a time, a golden time, when the name Hoyt Fuller was a household word.
Fuller was the editor of Black World, a magazine that should not have been able to exist, according to today’s publishing dogma. Produced by Johnson Publications as a successor to Negro Digest — described as a Black Reader’s Digest, offering reprints from the national press in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s — and sister publication to Ebony and Jet, Black World was “literally the most powerful, most widely circulated Black publication of all time,” says Dr. Lorenzo Thomas, professor of English and creative writing at the University of Houston-Downtown.
Thomas, a poet with several titles on the teaching and interpretation of African American poetry, has first-hand knowledge of those times. When just a college student in New York City, he joined the Umbra collective, a group of African American writers founded by Tom Dent and Calvin Hernton, and participated in both the “downtown” and “uptown” arts scenes in those hectic times.
He recalls Black World as the “voice of the Black arts movement,” but notes that it also carried articles from across the spectrum of Black opinion. Flipping through the pages of old journals, one finds progressive voices like Walter White of the NAACP and Charles Rangel, now a U.S. congressman, writing about politics, conservatives voices like George Schuyler and Zora Neale Hurston writing about school integration, special reports on African independence, interviews with writers famed in their time, known only to scholars today.
Amazingly, Black World had a circulation of 100,000, “and it didn’t carry any advertising,” he notes.
“No one gives much credit to the general public anymore,” he adds. “They think all we’re concerned about is the current doings of (pop star) Beyonce. But Hoyt Fuller thought there were people working in restaurants and garages as well as students in school who were interested in reading about African history and African American literature and economics, poetry and drama. And he proved himself to be correct.”
The magazine folded in the mid-1970s amid a swirl of rumors — some argued Fuller’s editorial support of the Palestinian cause had gotten him into hot water; others that the Johnson family had decided to pour its funds into the Ebony Fashion Fair.
Still, Black World/Negro Digest by their very existence lifted the boats of many smaller literary magazines. Young editors — such as Dr. Clarence Major with the Coercion Review, Bobb Hamilton with Soulbook and Joe Goncalves with the Journal of Black Poetry — were inspired to emulate or better its efforts.
By 1976, all these magazines had disappeared from the scene, and Fuller, after an abortive attempt to start a successor magazine, First World, was dead. The only literary journals to make it from that era to today were Obsidian, founded in 1975 by poet and professor Alvin Aubert; Callaloo, founded in 1976 to give a place to Southern literary voices; and Black American Literature Forum, founded in 1976 and known today as the African American Review.Thriving In Spite of the Odds
It is, thus, no surprise that surviving journals have taken pains to make sure their operations are financially self-sufficient.
The relationship and level of support is different with every journal. Based at Texas A&M, Callaloo receives enough financial support from the university to have a managing editor, office manager, work-study students and a travel budget worthy of envy. The African American Review, on the other hand, is completely self-supporting from subscriptions. Weixlmann did not want the journal to be vulnerable to shifts in university funding priorities. Obsidian is owned by North Carolina State University, and its editor has release time, a student assistant and an office. Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire is a publication of the Institute of African American Studies at New York University and can thus draw on its resources, similar to WarpLand and the Brooks Center at Chicago State University.
So the stakes are high for the editors of Black literary journals. And well they know it.
“In years to come, I hope someone will say of us, ‘They tried to educate people in the African Diaspora and outside of it about these people who were descendants of Africans who were sent out from their homeland as slaves — how they rose up from their chains and asserted their humanity and used the written word to triumph and prevail,” Rowell says.
But make no mistake, adds the Mali-born filmmaker and critic Dr. Manthia Diawara, professor of film and Africana studies at NYU and founder of Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire: “This is great fun actually. We’re having a wonderful time.”
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