The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York (CBL) presents the 15th National Black Writers Conference (NBWC2020). The conference, which started on Wednesday, runs until Saturday, November 14, 2020. The event, in association with Akila Worksongs, was rescheduled from its annually-held Spring dates due to COVID-19 and will be held virtually. This year’s theme, Activism, Identity, and Race: Playwrights and Screenwriters at the Crossroads, is a new focus for the Conference that boldly affirms and celebrates how the diaspora’s playwrights and screenwriters expand society’s understanding of Black life and the human experience. Forming part of an exciting program of events, anthropologist and interdisciplinary artist Alexis Alleyne-Caputo (Afro Diaries™) will present her short film titled ‘Colonial Currents: Black Women, Water, Trauma, and Baptism’.
Further to her previous projects exploring issues affecting black and brown communities, Alexis Alleyne Caputo’s project draws on current pertinent and intersecting issues, underscoring racial injustice, police brutality, climate change, COVID-19, and the global momentum supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. The short film will be followed by a Q&A, which I have been invited to participate in.
Much reflection is given on how artists, activists, and educators can respond to the conference’s overall theme of activism, identity, and race whilst widening discussion, exploring solutions and disseminating findings beyond the conference’s virtual registrants. The artist who contributed to the project were Andria Thomas, Anasthasia Grand-Pierre, Cheryl Harrell, Desiree Parkman, Kashia Kancey, Maryann A. Payne-Benjamin, M.M.N. Caputo, Na’Talya Elizabeth Duhart, Shawna Watson, Shawnnette Longley (Rimidi), and Yolande Clark-Jackson.
Speaking on the eve of the conference Alexis Alleyne Caputo explains, ”This is a response to the conference theme of Activism, Identity, and Race: Playwrights and Screenwriters at the Crossroads. The African American experience must be recorded and viewed from a wider lens, understanding similar or shared experiences of black people across the world. Milestones in history, our response, and the narrative of the African diaspora’s story matters. This is best served via the collaboration of literary, visual, and musical minds to celebrate our being and shape our future’’.
Other conference highlights include roundtable conversations, panel discussions, a town hall, film screenings, author readings, writing and playwrighting talk shops, a local vendor marketplace, and much more. The four-day virtual gathering brings together students, writers, artists, activists, scholars, literary professionals, theater and film giants, and other literature enthusiasts from near and far. The aim is to explore the challenges, rewards, and impact of working within the Black film and theater industries. Discussions will examine the ways that race, identity, politics, and popular culture shape the production of plays, films, and television shows.
Those of you familiar with Harlem in New York have probably seen it’s transformation over recent years. Walking around the area, you can see a difference from how it was over a decade ago. The area is yet another example of the gentrification of urban environments with increased rents, an array of expensive condos and luxury apartments purchased by upwardly mobile city workers. Of course, no area of the city should be exempt from developments or regeneration projects if they further the goal of more sustainable communities, benefiting society’s most disadvantaged. However, there is a legitimate concern for generations of local families being forced out of an area full of history, artistic expression and a sense of place. I’m very interested in the many views held by stakeholders and continue to observe how Harlem, as an historically and artistically rich area, benefits from change. This brings my focus to how Harlem is celebrated as an arts and cultural hub by contemporary writers.
There are numerous resources capturing the essence of the Harlem’s Renaissance, the cultural, social, and artistic explosion that took place in the 1920s and 30s. The latest is Joe Okonkwo’s novel JazzMoon, set against the backdrop of the renaissance and glittering Jazz Age Paris. The novel will be published by Kensington Books this May.
David Ebershoff, author of The Danish Girl and The 19th Wife has called Jazz Moon “A passionate, alive, and original novel about love, race, and jazz in 1920s Harlem and Paris — a moving story of traveling far to find oneself.”
Jazz Moon’s author Joe Okonkwo is a graduate of the University of Houston with a B.A. in theatre and an MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York. Joe made his living in theatre for a number of years as an actor, stage manager, director, playwright, and youth theatre instructor.
His short stories have appeared in a variety of print and online venues including Promethean, Penumbra Literary Magazine, Cooper Street, Storychord, LGBTsr.org, Chelsea Station, Shotgun Honey, Best Gay Stories 2015, Rind Literary Magazine, Em Dash Literary Magazine, Best Gay Love Stories 2009, and Keep This Bag Away From Children. His short story “Cleo” has been nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize.
Continually fascinated by Harlem’s rich history, I was intrigued to quiz Joe on his perspective and his ability to capture the essence of this notable period of African American history in the book.
Q.What books have most influenced your life?
James Baldwin’s Another Country was a big influence. I read it in high school, but not as part of any curriculum. It was the first gay book I ever read. When I finished it, I was depressed because I had really entered into the world of that book and found other people like me and I didn’t want to leave.
Toni Morrison’s books have been a big part of my life, especially Beloved. Historians and sociologists talk about how black Americans continue to be scarred by the experience of slavery. That was certainly something I believed, but more in a theoretical sense. Then I read Beloved and I saw that it’s not just a theory. Morrison captures the personal side of slavery and how it destructive it was—not just on a grand scale, but on a very personal level. Slavery destroyed individuals. It was a destruction that doesn’t heal easily or quickly. It’s a destruction that filters down the generations. I think Beloved is the most powerful book I’ve ever read because it takes the theoretical and puts human faces on it.
Q .What was the hardest part of writing this book?
JO- Jazz Moon is a historical novel, so making sure I had my facts correct was probably the biggest challenge. Making sure the characters’ language and slang was in keeping with the times. I reference a lot of real songs in the book, so I had to make sure that they had actually been composed by the time Jazz Moon begins (1925). Making sure descriptions are historically accurate.
I think the major challenge for any writer of historical fiction is sure to blending the historical research in to the story in a seamless and creative way. You don’t want the novel to feel like a history book. It’s historical, but still needs to read like fiction. I get extraordinarily irritated when I read historical fiction that feels like I’m reading a chapter from a history book. I do want to be instructed, but I don’t want to feel like I’m being instructed.
Q. Tell us briefly about your forthcoming book Jazz Moon.
JO- It started as a short story in 2004. It’s set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age Paris. It’s part coming-out story, part love story, part personal and creative odyssey.
I love the Harlem Renaissance. If I had a time machine and could go back to any era, it would be the Harlem Renaissance. The 1920s were a very difficult time to be black in the United States, but it was a very culturally and politically fruitful time nonetheless. Literature. Art. Broadway. Jazz, of course. And it was during this period that the foundations of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was laid. It was during the Harlem Renaissance that people—both white and black—realized that black was beautiful and, in terms of Broadway and the recording industry, marketable.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Harlem during that period (and something I focus on extensively in Jazz Moon) was gay life. It was mostly underground, but not completely. There were gay bars and an annual drag ball that was one of the social events of the year. There were places called “buffet flats,” which were the 1920s equivalent of sex clubs. You’d go to a house or an apartment and in each room were “performers” engaged in a different sexual activity. Could be hetero or homo. As an audience member, you selected the rooms and activities that piqued your interest the most, hence the “buffet.”
People were not pro-gay in the way we think of pro-gay in 2016, but they were certainly aware of the gays and mostly took the attitude of live and let live—as long as gays weren’t too open.
Q.Tell us about the book’s protagonists? Was there a real-life inspiration behind Ben Charles and his devoted wife Angeline?
JO- There was not a real-life inspiration behind Ben and Angeline. Jazz Moon is not based on real people. That said, there is absolutely a lot of me in many of the characters, especially Ben. I didn’t realize just how much of me was in these people until I was near the end of the process. Some of the characters are who I am. And some of the characters are who I want to be.
Q. What other real-life inspirations did you draw upon if any?
JO- Jazz Moon is, in part, a coming out story, and Ben suffers greatly during this process. I did draw on my own coming-out experience. I realized I was gay when I was thirteen, denied it like crazy till I was seventeen when I came out to myself, then “formally” came out at age twenty-one. While working on the novel, whenever I hit an emotional roadblock about Ben’s coming-out, I’d delve into my own experience, which was, at times, painful, lonely, and confusing.
Q. Much is being made of the gentrification of Harlem. Since 2000 particularly, the number of historically black, blue collar residents has fallen notably, especially in central Harlem. Whilst capturing the spirit of the renaissance, do you feel Jazz Moon contributes to forwarding the discussion of heritage, sustainable communities or a resistance to change?
JO- I don’t know about sustainable communities and resistance to change. But I would certainly like to think that Jazz Moon can start people thinking about heritage. As I’ve already mentioned, the Harlem Renaissance was a culturally and politically rich period. It’s a period that deserves study and recognition. We’re starting to see some recognition, I’m happy to say. Queen Latifah starred in a biopic about the great blues singer Bessie Smith last year. Audra McDonald is getting ready to open on Broadway in a version of Shuffle Along, which was produced in 1921 and was enormously important in the development of the black Broadway musical. I would be honored if Jazz Moon’s legacy is that it contributes to the continued rediscovery of the Harlem Renaissance.
Q. What are your future projects?
JO- I just finished a short story called “Picnic Street.” The first draft was based very closely on a childhood incident, but in subsequent drafts, the story veered pretty far from that incident. The story just started to write itself, which is exactly what you want: to give in to the story.
I have another short story that’s writing itself in my head right now. It may end up being a novella. I’m not sure yet. It involves politics and love and how (or if) people of differing ideologies can also have a successful relationship.
My next novel will again be set in the Harlem Renaissance, but this time it’s about a real person from the era: Gladys Bentley. She was a pianist and a blues singer and a drag king. She was known for wearing a white tux and white top hat and performing at a gay Harlem club called The Clam House. She would dirty up the lyrics of popular songs and flirt with women in the audience. She claimed to have married a white woman in an Atlantic City ceremony, but no one knows the identity of this woman. In the 1950s, Bentley gave an interview to Ebony magazine, renouncing her lesbianism and claiming that taking female hormones had “cured” her. She had an amazing, entrancing voice. She makes a cameo appearance in Jazz Moon and my protagonist is hypnotized by that voice.
There’s still so much to know and learn about the Harlem Renaissance. I’m not done with it yet.
Q. What advice would you give to young enthusiastic writers?
JO- READ. Read everything. Literary fiction. Genre fiction. Thrillers. Biographies. History. Read the news. Read politics. I’m a political junkie. I read up on political affairs every day and I’ve found that reading politics makes my fiction writing stronger. Political writers have to get to the point, get the facts across, and accomplish that in a way that’s engaging and keeps the reader reading. That’s valuable for a fiction writer. But to the main question: just read. Stephen King says that if you don’t have the time to read, then you don’t have the time or the tools to write.
As my exhibition comes to an end I’ve been taking time to check out a number of exhibitions and events currently available to see. Two very interesting exhibitions are at New York’s Schomburg Centre in Harlem.
The centre celebrates the 75th anniversary of our renowned American Negro Theatre (ANT). Known to the locals as “The Harlem Library Little Theatre,” the ANT was founded in 1940 as a community space for thespians to work in productions that illustrated the diversity of black life. This exhibition is taken entirely from the Schomburg Collections and highlights the ANT’s stage productions from 1940 through 1949 with photographs, posters, playbills, and news clippings. Images include scenes from successful plays such as Anna Lucasta, studio workshops, and radio broadcasts featuring prominent talent like Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Lofton Mitchell, whose careers began at the ANT.
The second show is Unveiling Visions: The Alchemy of the Black Imagination Curated by artist John Jennings and Reynaldo Anderson,this exhibition includes artifacts from the Schomburg collections that are connected to Afrofuturism, black speculative imagination and Diasporan cultural production. Offering a fresh perspective on the power of speculative imagination and the struggle for various freedoms of expression in popular culture, Unveiling Visions showcases illustrations and other graphics that highlight those popularly found in science fiction, magical realism and fantasy.
Both shows run until December 31st so if you’re in the city please visit. The exhibition galleries are open Monday – Saturday, 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. For further info please visit http://www.nypl.org/events/exhibitions
I had an enjoyable weekend at Africa Writes, the Royal African Society’s annual literature and book festival in association with the British Library. The energy and enthusiasm of some reminded me of the George R.R. Martin quote “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.” We can undervalue to power of literature and worth it holds in preserving our consciousness.
Launched in 2012, Africa Writes annually showcases established and emerging talent from the African continent and its diaspora in what is now the UK’s biggest celebration of contemporary African writing. The weekend delivered an exciting and varied programme of book launches, readings, performance and discussions, featuring debut authors alongside acclaimed writers and poets. I’m glad I attended, particularly since I discovered I’m related to one of the guest speakers! The event also highlighted the disturbing challenges many black writers and publishing houses face regarding distributing books where protagonist are people of colour, represented in ways far removed from the negative stereotypes seen in the media.
We talk about equally, living in a progressive and educating society, but this is hampered when black authors and their chosen subjects are marginalized or perceived to be relevant only the minority groups they come from. I look forward to witnessing the continued success of this event, the authors and represented publishing companies despite the challenges. For more info visit Africa Writes website.
If you’re an artist, fresh out of college and starting your career, what is your strategy for success? It can be argued that the world is a smaller place due to the advances in technology. Now we are able to market ourselves online through websites, various social media platforms, join art collectives, not to mention seek formal representation by galleries showcasing the work of both talented graduates and seasoned practitioners.
I’ve had a number of conversations with creative professionals, from architects to fashion designers, on the subject of how important it is to be business minded as well as creative. I’ve participated in a number of discussions regarding how important goal setting, marketing and strategic planning is. I’ve also witnessed contrasting views regarding how best to use the aforementioned platforms of communication. Maryland based artist Roopa Dudley is one person who has made it her personal goal to provide guidance for painters looking to establish long and fruitful careers. She kindly shared some of her thoughts with me:
Can you tell me more about how you became an artist?
I always wanted to be a wizard – so I became a painter. It started out at a very early age. I made my first watercolour painting of “Lady” as in “Lady and the Tramp” when I was only 3 and a half years old while the rest of my family was glued to the television watching the popular show at the time “The Six Million Dollar Man”. Once I discovered the joy of painting, I never stopped thereafter.
It of course helped that I had the genetic makeup for it; my father was an artist and my mother is quite artistic too. What pushed me to make it into a full time career was getting laid off from my regular 9 to 5 day job in early 2012. In order to deal with my anxiety attacks of being unemployed, I started painting much more frequently. The writing was on the wall for me when people started buying my paintings.
Is there particular artist that inspires you?
Oh, I have a whole list. Leonardo Da Vinci for his versatility, Rene Magritte for his thought provoking ideas and humor, Paul Gauguin for his intense colors and compositions. Tamara De Lempicka for her contemporary style and personality,Frida Kahlo for her courage and allegories. Salvador Dali for his technique and craftsmanship. M.C Escher for his draftsmanship and illusions.
I also interview many living artists for my Art Blog from all over the world whose work I find remarkable. Their personalities and contribution to society fills me up with all sorts of inspiration. So I do everything I can to support them and promote them and their work. As a matter of fact about six of them will be the superstars of my upcoming book, the next in the “Painter” series of three.
What’s your favourite medium and why?
Acrylics on canvas board. I like how the colours are so brilliant. Acrylics are easy to layer, environmentally friendly, don’t stink up my studio and are fast drying. Furthermore, they are versatile and permanent…unlike any other medium. As a matter of fact, I will be one of the six featured artists in the upcoming ‘Eco-Friendly Artists’ issue in the Professional Artist Magazine because of my conscious choice of using environmentally friendly products.
You recently wrote the book ‘ A Strategic Painter: Mastermind Your Craft. ’ The title seems self-explanatory but can you explain what motivated you to write it?
I wrote the book “A Strategic Painter ” as a manual for painters. Years ago, when starting my career as an artist/painter, I was looking for a similar book but could not find one. For the past fifteen years I went though a journey, learnt the “tricks of the trade” through trial and error, with research and analysis.
I read a lot of books that danced around the subject of art but were mainly catered towards the business aspect of being an artist. It was mind-baffling experience like I was missing an important piece of the puzzle. One day, on my quest to find this artist manual, I came across a book “HOW TO SURVIVE & PROSPER AS AN ARTIST” by Caroll Michels which gave me the answer to the “why” factor as to “why there are not too many books written to guide painters?” Here is what she wrote, “Some academics who discourage career advice at the college level believe that students should be sheltered from real-life survival issues while in school. But many fine-arts faculty members are opposed to career development courses for selfish and self-serving reasons: they are aware that today’s student artists will become tomorrow’s practicing artists, and eventually artists with whom they will compete for gallery, museum, and press attention, so there is much resistance to imparting any sort of information that could possibly give these future peers a career edge or jeopardize their own pecking order in the art world.” I figured that perhaps there are more people like me out there and if I can help them out and save them a few years, then that is a good thing. I am tired of hearing the phrase the “starving artist” and I sincerely believe on the contrary that painters have a lot to offer to the “starving world” that is devoid of fresh ideas and innovative concepts. In this digital age, the sky is the limit for any painter who wants to succeed.
How has it been received?
It is a slim book. With 30 images, it is less than 100 pages. It is meant for visual readers with possible ADD and a limited attention span so the chapters are short and to the point and keeps things interesting with all sorts of carefully selected chapter related visuals. No fluff at all. At some point I may include a couple more chapters, but for now I am quite satisfied with it.
A couple people who have read it (it just came out in the end of January 2014 so nobody has posted any reviews just yet – sigh). They have told me that it will be a great text book for college students who are taking painting classes as it gives them a clear picture as to how they can help themselves become a serious painter, how they can use and exploit the media to market and promote themselves. Also, for those who like myself, who were basically recreational artists and decided that they should take their passion to the next level.
However, on the flip side, I just got a review yesterday from someone who is a professional artist (I am connected to her through linkedin). Over all she liked the book however, she had a very specific problem with a chapter in the book dealing with art galleries vs. art studios (sales). I do understand where she is coming from. What she did not take into an account is that when one is starting out, it is one of the hardest things for an emerging artist to get a gallery representation. My point was to encourage artists just starting out that there is much more to being a professional than having a gallery representation and there is a way around it. So there you have it. You have both sides of the coin about my book.
This book is definitely not for everyone especially mid career artists who already have a gallery representation or the artists who are seeking major gallery representations or the artists who have a fragile mind. This is a total out of the box DIY approach fit only for those outliers who like to take charge of their own destiny.
With massive growth in social media and online marketing platforms how important is gallery representation for an artist?
Galleries will soon be becoming extinct and that is a fact. Unless they transform themselves into something other than what they are right now, digital revolution is going to annihilate them. Painters are becoming quite empowered with all kinds of knowledge available to them on the internet. Collectors are becoming educated when it comes to where to put their hard earned money towards and actually find it quite entertaining to visit artists in their studios and get to know them. Work of art is becoming more important than ever as collectors want originality and at an affordable price. A few well-reputed galleries would still survive despite the revolution I am sure, but gallery representation for an artist is now a thing of the past.
So what’s next in your career?
I usually have an annual Open Studio Exhibit around 4th of July weekend. I have been doing that religiously for the past three years. Majority of my art is sold during that exhibit. So I am preparing for that “Hot & Steamy” Open Studio Exhibit. Shoot me an email if you are in Maryland and would like to come. RoopaDudley@gmail.com
I have three more books to write. My second book, I plan on getting published next year. Writing a book is an exhausting experience (quite similar to pregnancy) but once all is done, and the product is out — voila!
The next three books are more art history as well as business related than my first one, which is in the “Art – Study & Teaching” genre. They will be catered towards mid career painters and art enthusiasts. As you can see, if I live long enough, I have already planned out my whole career – after all I am ‘a strategic painter. I practice what I preach.