Article and photos by Kenneth Sousie; Audio reporting by Shemuel Bacchus.
Since its inception, The Harlem Writers Guild has represented some of the most celebrated black writers in American history. With a membership that has included Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka and Alice Childress, the guild upholds the literary tradition born in the Harlem Renaissance and continues to play an important role in the literary life of African-American writers.
From hosting writing workshops to supporting Harlem bookstores, the guild promotes literacy and the creation of literature from the African diaspora. Founded in 1950 by John Henrik Clarke and Rosa Guy, it was built as a forum where African American writers could gather, workshop and exercise their literary crafts.
On Nov. 7, 2019, the current incarnation of the oldest African American writers guild in the world gathered at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, at West 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, for an evening of celebration.
A light drizzle fell as attendees entered the center, which was established in 1925 as the New York Public Library Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints. The building houses a vast collection illuminating a rich history of black influence on American arts and literature. It preserves the “black experience,” housing works by some of Harlem’s most important writers such as W.E.B. Dubois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. For the guild, and for the evening’s guests, the setting served as a symbolic gathering place for an institution that echoes sentiments from the Harlem Renaissance dating back 100 years.
The guild was formed after “The Committee for the Negro in the Arts,” a predecessor organization, lost funding, leaving African American writers feeling alienated from the literary culture in New York City. A 1949 letter from TCNA addressed what it saw as systemic racism, particularly in radio broadcasts. “[Radio] has consistently denied recognition to the Negro as a human being,” the letter read. “It has, except in rarest cases, presented the stereotype of the Negro as a clown; lazy stupid and ignorant.”
Signed by such writers as W.E.B. Dubois, Theodore Ward and Dorothy Parker, the letter described a climate that was a major factor in the need for Harlem’s writers to unionize and promote respectful African American representation. The guild’s first meeting space was above a humble storefront at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. As the years went by, the Guild gained members and recognition and was honored by the United Nations Society of Writers in 1977. The guild has seen its authors produce and publish over 600 works of literary fiction and nonfiction.
The November celebration was held in the Schomburg Center’s Aaron Douglas Meeting Room, which is decorated with the murals of the eponymous Harlem Renaissance painter, illustrator and visual arts educator. The evening’s main event was a panel consisting of its contemporary members: novelist Judy Andrews, novelist Eartha Watts Hicks, poet and essayist Marc W. Polite, journalist Angela Dewes, historical novelist Minnette Coleman, and spoken-word poet John Robinson, who sat at a long table in front of an audience of all ages, including “special guests,” seventh-graders from the nearby Democracy Preparatory School.
Opening the event, longtime member Sylvia L. White approached the podium while a band played “So What,” the first track of Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” album. As sounds from the piano and bass filled the space, White read a list of names: “Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Henry Belafonte, Alice Childress, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Sidney Poitier,” and added, “Some of these names are household names, others are known in academic and literary circles. The thing that all of these illustrious writers and performers share in common is that they were, at one time, members of The Harlem Writers Guild.”
The first speaker was Betty Ann Jackson, who has been a member of the guild for 37 years.
“Yes, I am old, and I’m proud of it,” said Jackson.
She recounted the story of her introduction to the guild in the spring of 1982, when she attended the very first Black Writers Conference sponsored by Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. Abandoned by her date, she went to find a table with “a pretty good view” of the front podium with people who she could enjoy the evening’s festivities with, “preferably smokers” since it was a no-alcohol event.
With tables filling quickly and no familiar faces in sight, she found a table with a “pretty good view” and “some smokers” who invited her to sit and join them for dinner.
“Between cigarette puffs I learned that the good-looking-guy-over-there was Bill-Williams-Forde,” she said, referring to the then-director of the Harlem Writers Guild. Also at the table was Rosa Guy, and a “very tall woman.”
At that, audience members in the Aaron Douglas Meeting room called out, “Maya!”
And indeed, it was Maya Angelou. “I knew it was her and I felt like I hit the jackpot,” Jackson said. “Although it was a dry event, the entire guild had bottles of rose wine under the table and they quickly filled her glass.”
When dinner was finished, the wine “continued to flow from under that tablecloth,” and Angelou was called to the podium, taking no notes with her — just her purse and her mink coat. Jackson recounted that Angelou stood at the microphone and said, in her distinct deep voice: “I’m so high. I don’t know what I’m going to say.”
The audience before Jackson broke into adoring laughter. Angelou’s speech, according to Jackson, was “totally brilliant,” and merited a standing ovation. When she returned to her table, her companions were so exuberant they accidentally knocked over the wine bottles, which “fell under our table like dominoes, clinking glass mixing with roaring applause.”
Director Diane Richards also spoke of Angelou, whom she said was difficult to talk about without feeling like she was still alive. She read from “The Heart of a Woman,” in which Angelou, who passed away in 2014, recounted one memory of her time as a member of the guild: “The Harlem Writers Guild was meeting at John’s House, my palms were sweating and my tongue was thick. The loosely formed organization without dues or business cards had one strict rule: any invited guest could sit in for three meetings, but thereafter, the visitor had to read from his or her works in progress.”
The tradition of workshopping, from the days of Angelou, is still important today and serves as the cornerstone of the guild. According to a letter by Richards, which can be found on Marc Polite’s web publication “Polite on Society,” one of the “primary initiatives” is to “cultivate and provide a sacred, strong haven” for “A Woke Black Nation.” In this spirit, the guild is not just a literary group for Richards, but a vehicle against socio-economic disparity and racism.
Listen to Marc W. Polite – “When The Real You Shows Up” below:
After honoring the past, the guild devoted the rest of the evening to contemporary works. One by one, guild members took to the podium to speak of their history, works and the core values they try to uphold in their writing.
“I write historical fiction, because I don’t want our tales to be forgotten,” said Minnette Coleman, before reading from her book, “The Tree: A Journey To Freedom,” a tale of magical-realism that examines the Underground Railroad.
Angela Dews, a former meditation teacher, reflected on the Four Noble Truths while reading from her novel, “Still, In the City,” about a Buddhist in New York City. “Suffering has a cause. I don’t suffer when I abandon my craving. When I open my awareness beyond my interior processes to a world that I am creating and sharing a space in, I see a sign,” Dews read.
Marc W. Polite recited his poem, “My People:” “My people face all kinds of evil – we’re still here! We find hope in the dimmest of places, building on the real, living, inspiring. Being Black and American means courage under fire, because the shots never stop.”
Listen to an excerpt from Minnette Coleman – “The Tree: The Journey to Freedom” below:
As pleased guild leaders thanked the audience for their attendance, the rustling of coats and movement of chairs against the marble floor was interrupted by a voice.
During the Q&A, a woman named Karen M. stood frantic and proud, trembling as she clenched the microphone. “Today marks one year since the passing of my mother,” she said. “I thought it was going to be so hard to get it together, but I can feel her, I can hear her, and I just wanted to share something.”
“Empowerment! Your movement, your improvement, ladies, queens, goddesses, it is time! Only you can stop yourself, let your vision shine! We will empower communities with common unity positive communication and cooperation is a must! We were put here to create opportunities for sisters and brothers to meet, greet and share opinions and views! We were destined to be here without fear – so thank you, Writers Guild, for putting this together.”
A brief and breathless pause overcame the room, and then a roar of applause. A visitor had just shared, traditions had been honored, and the Guild — a constant work in progress — smiled back. Maya would have been proud.