How October Became A Celebration Of BIPOC Literary Spaces
From colonialism to chattel slavery and the culmination of imperialism and systemic racism, access to reading and writing has always been a tool to reinforce structural oppression.
October 18, 2021 at 6:06 pm
Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity's.
Historically, the education system in the United States has predominantly focused on European literature in the classroom, yet Black people and people of color have been theorizing for centuries, but not through a Western lens.
They drew their analysis from oral narratives, proverbs and songs. These styles of research and communication inspired the spirituality of indigenous communities, the souls of Black communities and the cultural identities of so many more. However, after these bodies were historically and systemically mutilated, maimed, lynched, gassed, shot and detained, many theories were lost and suppressed throughout generations of oppression.
White privilege has defined who can achieve, who can get a job, who can buy a home and who stays alive. Many of these factors are influenced by the education system, access to literature and literary communities. People without these resources are often victims of the school-to-prison pipeline and other dehumanizing situations.
American literary studies were formulated by Western thought while the narratives of Black people and people of color are reduced to “ethnic studies” classes (yet, some people don’t understand the need for that), is seldom considered high theory and is often considered too contemporary to be as “respected” as classic Western ideology. With the awareness of both Black Poetry Day (October 17) and National Day On Writing (October 20), it’s a great time to reflect on the importance of BIPOC literary communities and to showcase underrepresented voices. It’s long overdue to have spaces that frontline Black and brown communities and recognize their immense worth.
While many obstacles stand in the way of these literary communities being able to hold space and formulate their own visions of literary expression, collectivism and storytelling, this month is all about showcasing those that dare to try. From colonialism to chattel slavery and the culmination of imperialism and systemic racism, access to reading and writing has always been a tool to reinforce structural oppression.
Educational pushback has permeated despite attempts to decolonize the classroom over the years. When BIPOC educators attempt to challenge these norms, they are pushed out of the system completely and labeled as “trouble-makers.” Their “good trouble” isn’t welcome in a racist system.
The educational system needs to be redefined by movement work and BIPOC literary spaces that resist the white-dominated academia and seek intersectionality, critical race theory and Black and brown community-led action that extends to the classroom and beyond.
Fortunately, there are some standout BIPOC literary communities dedicated to taking a stand to challenge the gatekeeping and racism that’s often experienced, and they didn’t get there alone. While Black Poetry Day is in October, its impact extends much further than a month. However, few people know its origins to begin with.
It all started with poet, writer and preacher, Jupiter Hammon who became the first Black author published in America on October 17, 1761. This is a huge historical moment, yet Hammon’s legacy doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
To pay homage to his work, as well as other Black poets, October 17 was named Black Poetry Day. When his poem, “An Evening Thought,” was published in New York, he became one of the founders of African American literature. Hammon was born a slave and didn’t publish “An Evening Thought,” until he was almost 50 years old. Slavemaster Henry Lloyd gave Hammon the opportunity to learn to read and write as long as he “cooperated” and helped with the family’s commercial businesses, which helped slavery continue.
Like his life, Hammon’s relationship with literature didn’t belong to him. Yet, he sought to use what he could to craft metaphors and symbolism through poetry to navigate the pain of slavery. His other works also include "An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley” (the first published Black woman author), and “An Address to Negros in the State of New York,” among others.
National Day On Writing was started by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), which offers English, language and arts support to students and teachers in classrooms, colleges and online. While they’ve been around for nearly 100 years, the NCTE has more recently been offering more antiracist conventions, has the American Indian caucus, Asian/Asian American caucus, Black caucus, Jewish caucus and Latinx caucus.
National Day On Writing is focused on inviting everyone to engage in activities based on the theme #WhyIWrite. NCTE has previously held events inviting the community from every walk of life to write any kind of work they wish and share it with others, regardless of skill level.
For BIPOC communities, writing takes on a unique significance, as it’s still not accepted and embraced as it should. With more recent issues, from the Arizona ban on ethnic studies and the attack on Critical Race Theory, to the utter lack of educational resources, representation and legislative support, too often Black and brown communities come last when it comes to writing, reading and overall literacy.
Fortunately, there are literary spaces working to ensure that these communities are no longer pushed aside when it comes to literacy and opportunity.
This year, I co-founded a BIPOC writing space called Giovanni’s Room, based on the James Baldwin novel, with Myriam Gurba (the author of the critically-acclaimed book, *Mean), and Button Poetry spoken word poet and writer Jasmin Roberts. We are an emerging non-profit organization in Long Beach, California.
“Giovanni’s Room began in our kitchens and living rooms, on the boardwalk at Ocean Boulevard and at our local bookstore. It started as us sharing our favorite quotes from the books we were reading, editing each other’s work and commiserating about our separate but equally frustrating experiences navigating the American writing industry,” our website reads.
Inspired to form a space that combines Blackness and queerness based on Baldwin’s legacy as a Black gay writer that broke boundaries, we are seeking to form a safe space for those that have felt vulnerable in other literary groups. We knew the answer was simple: we needed our own community.
Co-founder, Gurba explains, “I hope that Giovanni’s Room will be able to continue bringing literary programming that centers and celebrates racially minoritized people to Long Beach. The community is craving this resource and the written and spoken word is necessary for collective empowerment and inspiration.”
Our goal is to allow writers to share space, learn and hone their writing skills while also reimagining community and drawing inspiration from literary leaders like Gloria Anzaldua, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Sonya Renee Taylor, Roxane Gay, Patrisse Cullors, Adrienne Maree Brown and more.
“For me, Giovanni’s Room is about returning to our roots, to why we write, and what words bring us and our communities. In the last few years, this country has been reckoning with the ways racism impacts culture and the BIPOC-centered writing community is another key part of that conversation. I’m excited to hear the voices that have been previously silenced, and excited to explore what language could be, outside of a white-centered literary arena,” Roberts shares.
As an emerging space, Giovanni’s Room needs support from those that truly believe in our mission. This comes in many forms with volunteers, donations, kind words, skills and more. We will eventually have both in-person and online resources for BIPOC communities that need a welcoming writing space.
Also, check out other spaces like Kundiman (a New York-based national non-profit organization determined to nurture Asian American writers and readers) and Cave Canem (also a New York-based non-profit founded in 1996, which seeks to fix the isolation that Black poets experience in literary spaces). Lambda Literary, the nation’s leading LGBTQ+ literary organization, is also one to keep on your radar, as this non-profit works hard to ensure that queer stories are told.
Other organizations and resources for BIPOC writers include, We Need Diverse Books, Worldreader, VIDA, Girls Write Now, Pro Literacy, Pajama Program, Room to Read, Black Girls Who Write and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
If there is a need in your community for a space like this, we urge you not to be afraid to begin your own. Fostering change has never been easy, but when it comes to opening doors for those in need, it’s always worth it.