By Lynn Erskine
Ishmael Reed, Terry McMillan, Walter Mosley and thirty other writers will join editors and rap artists in New York City on March 30 to discuss the contributions of black writers to American society. The Fifth National Black Writers Conference is sponsored by Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.
One of the goals of the four-day meeting, which is supported by NEH, is to increase the quality and quantity of black literature on the market. "The publishing industry responds to the demand of the market, so we are trying to encourage public appreciation and, thus demand, for quality books by black writers," says Elizabeth Nunez, director of the National Black Writers Conference. According to Nunez, the publishing industry tends to publish only commercial works by black writers, while neglecting more literary works. "The publishing industry is careless in locating and developing a market for literary works by black writers, since it's easier to publish books in a market that has already been identified as successful."
Debate at the last conference in 1996 focused on whether black literature was experiencing a renaissance. The success of best-selling black writers like Terry McMillan, whose 1992 novel, Waiting to Exhale, sold 1.75 million copies, sent publishing houses clamoring for similar works by black writers. But was it a true renaissance? According to Nunez, some conference panelists believed that the success of black women writers only reflected the demand for women writers in general. Others went further and charged the publishing industry with silencing black male writers because they voice the strongest political viewpoints.
Panelists at the upcoming conference will discuss performance poetry, writing for movies and television, and the impact of black literature on American culture. An editors' roundtable is also planned.
"About two thousand people attend each conference, and then they go back to their communities and form book clubs and ask for these books in libraries and on the Internet," says Nunez. She believes that the growth in conference attendance, which has more than doubled since 1986, may have led to an increase in the public's demand for black literature.
The publishing industry now recognizes the lucrative market for books by black writers, says Nunez. But many black writers believe that there won't be a true renaissance in black literature until there are more black editors and publishers in positions of power.
Currently, there are only a handful of black editors at the major publishing houses, and their numbers have not increased significantly over the years, according to Malaika Adero, former executive editor at Amistad Press. Yet their presence is felt more within the publishing industry, due in part to the success of black women novelists. And publishing houses like Black Classic Press and Third World Press have increased sales in the last decade, says Adero, as writers such as Walter Mosley choose to publish books with them.
In addition to providing a forum for debate, the conference offers new writers a chance to get support from a community of scholars, poets, and authors. Writers can also meet informally with publishing agents and the public at exhibitions, book fairs with local booksellers, and author readings. The Brooklyn Public Library, in conjunction with the Brooklyn Museum of Art, is hosting an exhibit of the artist Gilbert Fletcher and a reception to celebrate his work. The conference will be broadcast live on the Internet (www.blackwriters.net), and panelists' presentations will be published in book form.