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Moorland Spingarn Research Center Hosts 50th Annual 2023 International Black Writers Festival 

Students, faculty and others gather for the International Writers Festival to discuss important topics surrounding Black literature with notable authors and journalists.

Students browse books in the Howard University School of Social Work, where the festival was held. (Tionne Thornton/The Hilltop)

The International Black Writers Festival, hosted by the Moorland Spingarn Research Center (MSRC), underwent its 50th anniversary this year, celebrating through the continuation of its annual event.

During the four-day festival, critically acclaimed Black writers from across the nation discussed their works and the different frameworks that contribute to the diaspora. 

For the second time in 40 years, this event has taken place on the grounds of Howard University through the MRSC.

Originally called the Moorland Foundation in 1914, the MSRC now possesses an extensive worldwide collection of documents, artifacts, and photographs. Serving as a prominent research institution throughout its history, the MSRC has strived to shed light on the Black experience within the African diaspora by leveraging historical information to establish connections and develop theories.

The start of the festival was influenced by the National Black Writers Festival, which was founded at Howard University in 1974 by esteemed individuals such as Dr. Andrew Billingsley, Dr. Haki R. Madhubuti, Dr. Stephen E. Henderson and Dr. John Killens.

The festival, named “A Festival Defining the Essence of the Global Black Experience through Writing,” offered a platform for student writers and established figures in the literary world. Esteemed poets, essayists, publishers, professors and journalists, including Howard alumni, served as panelists. They shared their journeys as writers and shed light on their creative endeavors.

In co-sponsorship with the “Center for Journalism & Democracy,” the festival embraced the theme of “Why We Gather” this year. The theme provided a platform to re-evaluate Black significance within political and intellectual spheres. This is particularly relevant at a time when Black intellectuals and artists are receiving, statistically, the most accolades from institutions and organizations that have been historically and primarily white.

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The auditorium rows brimmed with students, guests, and administration as lively drumming signaled the commencement of the event, hosted by Dr. Benjamin Talton and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The panel discussions commenced featuring Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Mitchell Esajas and Mukoma Wa Ngugi as the key speakers in a session called, “The Future of Global Black Literary Institutions and the Black Archive.”

Bakare-Yusuf, the founder of Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria, talked about dismantling different filters and stereotypes around Black writing as the first step towards its visible future. “In a search to redefine the Black Literature, we must first stop seeing it as separate than literature itself, but rather part of a bigger whole,” he said.

Zimbabwean journalist Panashe Chigumadzi moderated the interactive conversation, exploring the future of Black literature with an emphasis on the diasporic perspective.

Ngugi further elaborated on this by discussing his contribution to Black fiction and delving into the intersectionality between the Black perspective and abstractism. When asked about his inspiration behind writing Black crime fiction, the Cornell professor said, “I write mainly to educate but also to entertain my readers. I want there to be some sort of baseline that all of my readers can relate to through fiction to truly connect and resonate with my writing.”

Following this theme, the next panel, “Why We Gather in the Black Imagination: Black Space in Fiction,” talked more about the Black fictional space in depth, highlighting the importance of imagination and creativity in shaping and envisioning Black spaces.

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The all-women-led panel emphasized the power of fiction as a medium to amplify Black voices, challenge narratives, foster unity, and inspire social change. 

Jamila Minnicks, author of “Moonrise Over New Jessup,” said, “The fictional space to me is a tool used to focus on the lived experiences and perspectives we may rarely see.”

“For me, exploring the realms beyond reality entails crafting meticulously backed accounts and narratives rooted in evidence and research, shedding light on lives we cannot fathom otherwise,” Minnicks continued. “It entails incorporating an honest, precise, and comprehensive history to amplify the tales of individuals within our narratives.”

Minnicks was joined by Ebony LaDelle, author of “Love Radio,” and a sister-writer duo, Maritza & Maika Moulite, co-authors of “One of the Good Ones,” a social fiction novel tackling the intersectionality in racial politics and the spirit of sisterhood, living as a young Black woman in America. 

Short stories and reading followed during the seminar called, “A Reading and Conversation: The Transition to Writing For Adults,” where panelists shed light on the significance of diluting censorship through reading. Additionally, the seminar emphasized the importance of establishing a contextual foundation for Black writers transitioning into adulthood.

Author Patricia Elam Walker, known for her celebrated picture book “Nana Akua Goes to School,” vividly recounts the impact of her mother’s liberal approach to reading in her formative years. She explains how this freedom fueled her passion for writing and allowed her imagination to run rampant.

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“When I was around 13 or 14, attending my uncle’s funeral, I happened upon his book collection. It was during this time that I developed a curiosity for a rather provocative book centered on the topic of sex, titled ‘Story of O’,” she said. “As my interest in the book grew deeper, an observant adult nearby expressed concern to my mother, asserting that I was engaging with material inappropriate for my age.” 

Walker also explained that her mother stood up for her as she believed in reading as a tool for knowledge rather than for ignorance. “My mother was a librarian, and because of this understood the importance in allowing us to explore through reading that to me was a gift,” she said.

The panel, moderated by Jonathan Gray, analyzed and deconstructed the different works of writers Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, and Mahogany Browne.

Early on the third day of the festival, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Mikki Kendall and Ibram Kendi continued a similar sentiment during a discussion. The highly decorated panel discussed the attempted erasure and censorship of Black history within the classroom and literary environments. 

During the questions portion of the discussion, Coates, writer of the renowned, “The Case For Reparations,” was asked to expand on the importance of having a foundational idea of Black history as Black people. 

“You need to be made whole, whether that be in connection with your roots or whatever may have you. It always needs to come full circle and my biggest takeaway is honestly to do that, you have to be around your people and your community,” Coates said.

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Professor Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize award-winning investigative journalist, said, “My current priority lies in advocating for reparations, which necessitates a comprehensive understanding of the daily realities experienced by Black individuals in this nation, as well as their rightful entitlements.”

Following the festival, Kendall, a highly respected author and activist renowned for advocating for the Black community, shared her thoughts concerning the community’s dynamics and the festival’s invigorating energy. However, it was Howard who bestowed upon her this remarkable and impactful experience. 

“I learned that the impact that HBCUs had on students is way bigger than I had imagined,” Kendall said. “Being surrounded by this majority Black and extremely educated community is something that every Black person should experience at some stage in their lives. You need a space where you are with your people.”

Students Bria Williams and Ashlee Figaro, both sophomore psychology majors, also gave their biggest takeaways from the insightful festival experience. 

“I haven’t thought about how essential writing and journaling is to framing our society together. I’ve learned a lot about the power of narrative to influence how we view the world, but also specifically to how Black people see the world.” Williams said. 

“I had no idea how impactful writers are in history,” Figaro said. “Michael Harriot talked about this notion of, what you choose to leave out reinforces the idea of what you tell. This whole festival put into perspective the fact that if there were no writers to tell our story, nobody would know.”

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Copy edited by Diamond Hamm

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