Black Writers Ready for the Millennium
Chicago State University played host to approximately 550 writers, students, scholars and educators who attended the 10th Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Writers’ Conference last month. The four-day conference, “Ready for the Millennium: Black Writers’ Approaches to the Diaspora,” opened with a children’s poetry reading and culminated with a presentation of literary awards and a keynote address by Susan L. Taylor, currently publications director for Essence Communications, and her husband and filmmaker/author Khephra Burns.
But in between there were several panels and discussions by such literary notables as Sonia Sanchez; John Edgar Wideman; Marita Golden; and Ishmael Reed. Dr. Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor at Ebony magazine, discussed his latest book, Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.
A panel, “The Future of Black Education,” brought together a younger generation of educators who discussed their experiences in academia as African American doctoral students and the importance of finding mentors to guide them through the transition from graduate students to educators and administrators. Panelists included: Dr. Rachel Lindsey, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences at Chicago State University; Dr. Nichole Pinkard, assistant professor in the school of education at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; and Dr. Ronald S. Rochon, associate dean of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse.
A panel of distinguished African American educators, all of whom have served and continue to serve as mentors to the above mentioned scholars, discussed the importance of mentoring. They also shared their own experiences as mentors, often being the lone Black faculty member in a department.
Members of the panel included: Dr. James D. Anderson, head of the department of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Dr. Edgar Epps, professor of educational policy and community studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education Emeritus at the University of Chicago; Dr. Safisha Madhubuti (also known as Carol D. Lee), associate professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University; and Dr. Barbara Sizemore, professor emerita and former dean of the school of education at DePaul University in Chicago.
“Being the only Black professor can be a lonely job,” Epps said. “You have to find intellectual support from academics at other institutions or by attending conferences.”
Madhubuti and Sizemore talked about the challenges and successes of teaching Black youth.
“You have to treat children like they are coming in with strengths, you have to draw on their strengths,” Madhubuti said. Sizemore added that to effectively teach Black children, teachers must have some understanding of the children’s culture.
Both the younger and older generation of educators agreed that diversity efforts and the presumption of inferiority remain the primary challenges for African American students in all levels of education.
“The presumption of inferiority is a major barrier,” Epps told Black Issues. “Always having to prove yourself . . . it creates anxiety. Even those coming from HBCUs have to prove themselves once they leave [the HBCU]. You have to find a support system.”
In addition to the education panel, there were panel discussions on “Hip Hop and the Global Images of Black Youth”; “Perspectives on the Literary Contributions on Haki R. Madhubuti”; “The Global Context of Writing Black Fiction”; “The Critical Undertaking: Publishing in 2000, a Roundtable Discussion”; and many others. There also were poetry readings and an open mic poetry competition.
The honorees of the International Literary Hall of Fame, which were inducted on the last day of the conference include the following: Dr. Bernard Bell; Abena Joan Brown; Marie Brown; Dr. William E. Cox, president, and Frank L. Matthews, publisher, of Black Issues in Higher Education; Jan Spivey Gilchrist; Marita Golden; Hermene D. Hartman; John H. Johnson, publisher at Ebony and Jet; Dolores Kendrick; Paule Marshall; Sharon Bell Mathis; Useni Eugene Perkins; Sterling Plumpp; Susan L. Taylor; Dempsey Travis; and John Edgar Wideman.
Paul Lawrence Dunbar; Oscar Micheaux; Dr. Maria K. Mootry; Dr. Darwin Turner; Douglas Turner Ward; Enoch Waters and Dr. Carter G. Woodson were honored posthumously.
The 11th annual conference is scheduled for the fourth weekend of October 2001, with the theme, the “Black Arts Movement: Black Arts to Hip Hop,” says Dr. B.J. Bolden, director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University. Haki R. Madhubuti, director of the conference, founded the center in 1989, the same year Brooks arrived at Chicago State. The official center opened in 1990. Madhubuti currently serves as director emeritus of the center.
Gwendolyn Brooks, Distinguished Professor of English at Chicago State, who was unable to attend a majority of the conference due to illness, is the author of more than 20 books of poetry including In the Mecca (1968); The Bean Eaters (1960); and Annie Allen (1949) for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. In 1968, she was named poet laureate for the state of Illinois. Brooks was the first African American writer to both win the Pulitzer Prize and to be appointed to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1976).
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