A valuable resource for writers, readers, and publishers alike, black literary organizations have for decades raised awareness of African-American writers and their literary legacy while also nurturing and championing black creativity in succeeding generations. PW compiled a list of such organizations and offered their directors the opportunity to speak about their missions, their histories, how they serve their members, and their current plans and operations.
African American Literature Book Club
The African American Literature Book Club started out in 1998 as an online bookstore. Over the years, we’ve become a platform for helping authors and publishers connect with readers through book reviews, videos, event coverage, creating a web presence for authors, and more. We provide a wide variety of services including book printing, manuscript editing, discussion forums for the exchange of opinions on black literature and culture, a black bestsellers list, a comprehensive list of book festivals, black-owned bookstores, and other resources. We assess and report on the reading habits of African-Americans and advocate for web equality and independence. AALBC’s primary mission is to celebrate and promote black literature, from all over the world, to readers of all backgrounds. We don’t have an official membership; people engage with the website in the manner which makes sense to them. I run the entire website, including writing and publishing articles, curating books, and selling the books in our online store. In October, more than 500,000 people visited the website. We work with the publishing industry to provide a platform for showcasing their books. Advertising banners on our website, newsletter sponsorship, book sales at events, and social media outreach are just a few methods we use to help publishers reach our audience. —Troy Johnson, founder
African American Literature and Culture Society
All of our members and participants are actively publishing scholars and authors. The African American Literature and Culture Society was formed in 1993 under the umbrella of the American Literature Association (ALA), which itself is a coalition, formed in 1990, of societies devoted to the study of American authors. At that time, there were only about three author societies honoring black American writers, and only two of them presented panels at the ALA. Under the founding presidency of Wilfred Samuels (now retired from his professorship at the University of Utah), a group of scholars formed at ALA to ensure that there would always be a strong representation for African-American studies at he ALA. Over the years, numerous black author societies have been formed (Amiri Baraka, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Pauline Hopkins, Charles Johnson, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman), so the AALCS no longer bears the entire responsibility for all African-American literature.
Our group works to further the study and appreciation of African-American literature and culture worldwide. We do this by sponsoring conferences and symposia, and by honoring scholars and writers with our annual awards; our annual events alternate between Boston and San Diego. We have roughly 45 dues-paying members who attend most years, but in any given year we have others who come to present their scholarship but may not renew their membership till the next time they present. Our awards receptions are open to the public and draw audience members from the host city. These events have been our most popular. — Belinda Waller-Peterson, president, and Aldon Lynn Nielsen (President, 2008–2011)
Cave Canem has supported the careers of black poets for nearly 24 years. A 2018 study by the National Endowment for the Arts showed that poetry readership has doubled in the last five years, with people of color now reading poetry at the highest rates. The Academy of American Poets name Cave Canem—and several culturally specific poetry organizations modeled after Cave Canem—as primary drivers of this increased readership. Our mission is to cultivate the artistic and professional growth of African American poets. Our membership consists of over 430 fellows and over 900 participants in the regional workshops at our Brooklyn office; we also hold a weeklong annual retreat each June at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. We also offer book prizes, public readings, craft talks, and legacy conversations featuring established and emerging black poets, which are also available to the larger literary community.
The fellowship is extremely talented and is comprised of celebrated poets such as Elizabeth Acevedo, Mahogany L. Browne, Rickey Laurentiis, Morgan Parker, and Danez Smith. Cave Canem fellows and faculty have received some of the most prestigious awards and fellowships, including the Guggenheim Fellowship, MacArthur Fellowship, National Book Award, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize, the Tufts Poetry Award, and the Whiting Award.
Cave Canem offers three prizes in partnership with notable publishers: The Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book is published by the Univ. of Georgia Press. The Cave Canem Northwestern Univ. Press Poetry Prize is awarded for a second book, and the Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize is published by Jai Alai Books and includes a residency at the Writer’s Room at the Betsy Hotel in Miami and a featured reading at the O, Miami Poetry Festival.
The year 2020 will be an exciting one as we prepare for our 25th anniversary in 2021. The programming and opportunities the community has come to love and expect will continue, along with additional opportunities to celebrate this historic milestone. —Amanda Johnston, board president
The Center for Black Literature
The Center for Black Literature was established to expand and enrich the public’s knowledge and appreciation of the value of black literature; to continue the tradition and legacy of the National Black Writers Conference; to serve as a voice, mecca, and resource for black writers; and to study the literature produced by people of the African diaspora. The Center serves roughly 3,500 people yearly though its various programs.
Writers and artists may submit work to the Center’s journal, the Killens Review of Arts and Letters. Elders publish memoirs, poems, and creative work in Tales of Our Times, a journal published by participants in the Elders Writers Workshop. Students’ work appears in the ROLL Anthology, a journal published by students who participate in the Re-Envisioning Our Lives Through Literature program. Additionally, writers have an opportunity to be interviewed on Writers on Writers, a weekly radio show airing on WNYE 91.5 FM that focuses on the work of black writers throughout the African diaspora.
The Center has also partnered with African Voices; the Central Brooklyn Public Library; NYC- ARTS’ Center for Art & Culture of Bedford-Stuyvesant; PEN America; and the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. The Center also vendors at book festivals.
Partnering with the publishing industry, the Center hosts panels on publishing at its annual conferences and symposia and presents workshops by editors, agents, and publicists. The Center provides a forum for those in the publishing industry to examine and learn about the themes and trends in the literature of black writers; to become more conscious of the issues, challenges and concerns experienced by black writers; and to showcase emerging black writers. Publishers also vendor at the Center’s conferences and provide books and journals at the Center’s programs.
In 2020, The Center for Black Literature will present the 15th National Black Writers Conference, titled “Activism, Identity and Race: Playwrights, Screenwriters and Scriptwriters at the Crossroads,” from March 26–29 at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.
—Brenda M. Greene, founder and executive director
Harlem Writers Guild
The Harlem Writers Guild is a nonprofit organization based in Harlem, N.Y., offering workshops and career support for our members. It is the oldest organization of African-American writers, founded in 1950 by Walter Christmas, John Henrik Clarke, Rosa Guy, John Oliver Killens, and Willard Moore to provide support, resources, and opportunities to black writers, who often found white literary circles non supportive. HWG’s mission then and now is to provide support for black writers and identify venues that will best showcase our stories.
Compared to other writers’ organizations, we are a small group of writers. Historically, however, our membership has comprised such world-renowned authors as Maya Angelou, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, Terry McMillan, Louise Meriwether, Walter Dean Myers, Paul Robeson, Valerie Wilson Wesley, and Sarah Elizabeth Wright. In 2016, Meriwether—a member since the guild launched—received a lifetime achievement award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and her birthday, May 8, was declared Louise Meriwether Appreciation Day by Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer. That same year, the Feminist Press launched the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize to lift up debut women and nonbinary authors of color.
We offer editorial and publishing services (many of our members are publishers), participation in literary festivals and book fairs, advice for emerging writers, and supportive critical feedback on works-in-progress in our biweekly writers’ workshop held at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
We also believe that literature has room for more than one Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison—but we must be proactive in ensuring that such a writer has a place to develop, be encouraged, and ultimately be published. Our organization must not only support but fight for such a writer. So the need for what we do continues to be even more critical in these pivotal times, to demonstrate an autonomous perspective on writing and publishing.
Periodically, we host open meetings, inviting writers of all genres—rap, poetry, film, music, plays—who are interested in joining our group to sit in on a workshop. We partner with several organizations, among them the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, which has named one of its literary programs after one of our founders, John Oliver Killens; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and the New Federal Theatre, which supports our HWG playwrights. We also encourage writers to join the New York chapter of the National Writers Union, a staunch ally of our writers.
We will celebrate 70 years in existence in 2020. Please stay tuned. —Diane Richards, executive director
The Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation is a literary nonprofit organization founded in 1990 in Washington, D.C. When author Marita Golden and bibliophile Clyde McElvene created the foundation, their mission was to create a writers’ organization to nurture black writers and diversify literary representation by offering workshops, mentorship, and financial resources.
Our first program was an award to encourage black college students, inspired by Marita’s distress over the small numbers of black students in the writing classes that she taught; she personally provided the $750 cash prize to the winner. We now have five core program offerings: the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, to celebrate excellence by black authors; the Hurston/ Wright Award for College Writers, sponsored by Amistad, an African-American-focused publishing imprint, and its parent company, HarperCollins, which recognizes excellence by black college students in fiction and poetry; writing workshops and master classes; free public readings; and, in honor of the birthdays of Richard Wright (Sept. 4, 1908) and Zora Neale Hurston (Jan. 7, 1891), we host public readings, panel discussions, and social media campaigns to recognize the achievements of these legendary writers. This year we celebrated Richard Wright’s birthday with author and filmmaker M.K. Asante and the scholars at the Richard Wright Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.
While we don’t have a formal membership, we do work with and provide services for an expansive network of writers, readers, and publishers. To date over 1,000 writers have participated in our small group writing workshops and over 2,000 readers and patrons of the literary arts have attended our public readings to hear Hurston/Wright authors read from their works. Over 10,000 supporters of our mis- sion engage with our email and social media platforms.
We’re very proud that some of today’s best-selling authors were first Hurston/Wright College Award winners, including Natalie Baszile (Queen Sugar), Brit Bennet (The Mothers), Tayari Jones (An American Marriage), and Nnedi Okorafor (the Binti series). Joy Priest, who won the 2016 Hurston/Wright College Award for Poetry, will release her first book, Horsepower, in 2020 with Univ. of Pittsburgh Press. In addition, our writing workshops have contributed to informing the careers of dozens of well-known and bestselling authors, including Jericho Brown, Nicole Dennis-Benn, and Imani Perry. Our founder Marita Golden’s The Wide Circumference of Love has been optioned for a television series.
We are very grateful for our publishing partners and supporters. For the past five years, Amistad has underwritten our Award for College Writers, which recognizes black writers in full-time college programs. In addition to monetary support, the HarperCollins editors and team have been key thought partners, providing advice and contacts for securing support and resources for our work. HarperCollins also holds the catalogues for both Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, and generously donates books from our name- sakes, which we in turn share with our writer and reader communities. Penguin Random House has also been a long-term supporter of our work through financial contributions and in-kind donations of books from literary greats such as Toni Morrison.
The year 2020 marks the foundation’s 30th year. I’m very excited about our upcoming anniversary; it’s important that we pause and celebrate with everyone who walked hand in hand with us through the glorious and challenging times. —Kesha Lee, executive director
Diane Patrick is a contributing editor at PW and writes regularly on a variety of book industry topics.
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