Akulah Agbami, attended the National Black Writers Conference, New York, in 2018. Here she shares her experience of the event.
Gathering at the Waters, Gathering at the Waters: Healing, Legacy, and Activism in Black Literature
New York 22 -25 March 2018.
This is not a formal report. I am still ‘recovering’ from the intense circulation of knowledge, conviction, passion., Held at Medger Ever’s College, a traditionally Black institution, in New York, every two years, the conference created a space for profound understanding and remembering.
This was a four day event bringing together edgy Black writers, producers.But rather than a list of names, a catalogue of who said what, I want to convey a sense of the whole. I am weaving together quotations, impressions and statements verbatim to approximate the energy and thrust of this gathering. So the ‘I’ does not, strictly speaking belong to me –though it is an ‘I’ that I belong to.
BADDDDD Sonia Sanchez – a film which took 5 years to shoot and pays tribute to the indomitable determination of poet and activist Sonia Sanchez for whom poetry is a weapon for social justice and community building.
I write to keep myself busy and try not to go to prison.
America an exceptional country? This constitution was written in the presence of enslaved Afrikans and native Americans were being stripped of their lands.It is white supremacy by any means necessary.How dare America try to make itself a model for democracy? How dare America have a statue of liberty and purport to welcome people from all over the world and then call them murderers and rapists.
My activism is a form of survival.
This is true for all activism. I look at my literary activism as a useful part of my living and breathing.
Yesterday at the UN they recognised 21 March as the day of global history – to acknowledge the extent of racial oppression continuing in the world. This is a global issue. We have millions of people who move from one part of the world to another. We are looking at how entrenched discrimination is against people of colour. Two steps forward and one and three quarter steps back. Jesse Jackson saying to be free and unequal is to live in the in-between world. This audience should be full (approximately 60 people in an auditorium of five hundred). People think they are already free. We need better communication about what freedom means.
Freedom has to be generational. Our grandparents and parents worked so that we don’t have to think about these things.
Freedom is liquid.
Our young people are upset – they feel free but they are not. They know something is wrong – they are told words but know it is not true.
We are walking dead mentally. Too many black people are sleepwalking.
It is problematic to fit different models of activism from one time to another. One of the challenges is we have to have enough imagination to create new ways of thinking about community and struggle.
People are doing the right things – outrage and protest. But society is sophisticated enough to morph and get the same outcome.
We need these three things together to achieve change.
PROTEST has to be linked to a vision. You can protest online. What is the vision? What is the courage?Protest was always chaos. YOU’VE GOT TO SHAKE THE SYSTEM – SHAKE THE CAGE.
Young people need to be connected to older people with knowledge but now, perhaps, unable to create the chaos.
We look at the Black Arts Movement and the emergence of Black poets – artists realizing that we are community-based.
Are you willing to educate a revolutionary?
Would the music industry agree to support music which lifts and builds a community? There is a shift from empowerment, through original hip-hop, to denigration. There is a long history of hip hop endorsing crimes against Black women. See the work of C Delores Tucker who campaigned against this form of hip hop.
What is the vision?
The criminal justice system was designed to oppress.
Look at education. You have to educate children of colour not just with a free education but with an equal education.
We need to move towards a collective sense of economy.
We have to step outside the system when it comes to criminal justice, education and economy. It is killing us.Let’s work to create our own systems within the system.
The electronic era has affected where people get information. Our comfort zone has become very narrow. So it is important to keep reading newspapers, to stumble upon different types of information outside our usual newsfeed.
Hip hop is always the scapegoat. Hip hop made me do it. So many people blaming the use of heroin on rap lyrics. A lot of young people don’t know the history of rap.
The ‘n’ word is the symbol of white supremacy.
I believe in Black empowerment. The report on the status of Black women and girls includes our challenges as well as our triumphs.
There are not enough black businesses. Everyone should have a business on the side. Then the money can be spent within our community. Building our collective wealth.
It is always good to have allies – always good when people from the outside come to assist. But it is only when it comes to Afrikan-American that others know what is best for us. There are no gentiles leading Jewish organisations. Nor men leading women’s organisations.
We have to define our freedom.
We are a great investment to make for any ally. We have gotten over obstacles much greater than this. People can learn from us. We are not just an object of pity. We have a lot to share with other communities. We need to assume our position of leaders.
How has literature of the Black Arts Movement provided a foundation for discussion of the situation of Black people? As Audre Lorde said ‘How infinitely complex is any movement for liberation’. How can we focus our rage upon our enemies rather than ourselves?
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