Elders Writing Workshop
ELDERS WRITING WORKSHOP
A Collaboration with the Center for Black Literature and Siloam Presbyterian Church
The Center for Black Literature, John Oliver Killens Chair
Poets & Writers
Since 2003, the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY, has sponsored Tales of Our Times, the Elders Writing Workshop “intended to preserve the memoirs of African-Americans whose lives span a major part of the twentieth century and beyond.” The writing workshop began as the Writing Project for Older African- Americans with the purpose of gathering information from older Black Americans whose history is likely to be distorted or lost for lack of original documentation. The specific purpose of the writing workshop is to encourage older African-Americans to recall the past and to help them turn their recollections into inspirational memoirs and stories.
Telling Our Stories
When African-American history focuses on people, it usually spotlights iconic heroes and celebrities. Oftentimes, there is scant attention given to the evolution of the culture and community that inspired the activism and nourishment of the talents of these heroes and celebrities. The elements and material that inform the lives of people who have helped to shape Black culture are valuable; there is a need for information relating to their contributions to and progress within our communities to be recorded. Materials concerned with elements of social attitudes and relationships, daily encounters, behaviors, beliefs, family dynamics, and religion—not to mention emotion and intuition—play an important role in gaining a new perspective about a person’s identity and at the same time affirm the identity of the African-American community at large.
Their stories in turn become our history.
Many African-Americans of older generations, some descendants of enslaved Africans, made huge sacrifices, such as leaving their families and migrating to other parts of the country with the hope of a better life; others faced challenges in the forms of discrimination, racism, and segregation during their journey and even after they were settled. By examining the daily life of ordinary folk, through the Elders Writing Workshop, we document the experiences of a unique generation of Americans and are privileged to witness the ingredients that have helped them to create a vibrant African-American culture and historical record.
Keeping History Alive
In 2002, Dr. Brenda Greene, Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature, and Dr. Edith Rock, a former nursing professor at Medgar Evers College and a member of Siloam Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York, met to plan for the launching of the Older African-American Writing Workshop. Siloam Presbyterian Church was founded in the mid-1800s and was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and it is a community-centered meeting space that has host a variety of activities such as music performances, seminars, and workshops. Malaika Adero, then an editor at Simon & Schuster publishers and editor of the anthology Up South: Stories, Studies, and Letters of this Century’s African- American Migrations, conducted the early writing program. The participants were extremely motivated and intellectually engaged in the program. They focused on themes that included the role of the church and school during Jim Crow; music and humor as strategies of dealing with racism; and how literature speaks to the lives they knew and know. The participants in CBL’s Elders Writing Workshop are largely African-American and Caribbean women of the World War II generation, who at one time counted among them “the oldest member” at age 93.
Participants in the program who met biweekly were college-educated professionals in the fields of business, education, and nursing; and most of the participants were in their eighties and nineties. Although many of the participants were retired, they actively participated in their communities. One of the highlights of the year’s program was a public reading at the National Black Writers Conference, where there was a tribute to author, activist, and educator John Oliver Killens.
During the 2006–2007 academic year, fiction writer Nelly Rosario, author of Song of the Water Saints, led the workshops. The workshops allowed writing participants to continue to work on their memoirs; more emphasis was placed on providing participants with writing exercises that enabled them to explore their subjects in more depth and to pay attention to details. The participants attended several events at Medgar Evers College, including a tribute to writer, musician, and educator Yusef Lateef and a tribute to lyrical poet Bob Marley. Additionally, writers presented their works at two public readings.
Since the 2008-2009 academic year, author Donna Hill has led the workshops. Hill has written for magazines and has more than 50 published titles to her credit, including What Mother Never Told Me, Love Becomes Her, and Guilty Pleasures. Once again, writing participants are continuing to work on turning their memories into impressive stories describing the events that shaped their lives. A collection of their memoirs and stories, Tales of Our Times: An Anthology, edited by Donna Hill and author Fred Beauford, is a forthcoming publication of the Center for Black Literature.
For more information about the Elders Writing Workshop and to register, please contact the Center for Black Literature by visiting our Web site, www.centerforblackliterature.org; via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling 718-804-8883; or contact Donna Hill at email@example.com..