A panel discussion Sunday afternoon featuring seven African-American women writers who explored identity, publishing and social issues brought together more than 150 people at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.
The panel was the first of a three-part series presenting the experiences, challenges and success stories of local black women writers from across the diaspora, including Africa, the Caribbean and the United States.
Carolyn Holbrook, a writer and educator who instigated the “More than a Single Story” discussions, said she hopes the series will redefine the diverse voices of black Americans and accentuate the rich cultures within the community members, who are often, as the panelists put it, “lumped together” as though they share a single experience.
“For some reason, white America tends to lump us into one voice,” Holbrook, who moderated the discussion, said in an interview. “We’re not speaking from one voice. We have so many different experiences, different exposures to life.”
In her opening remarks, Holbrook spoke of her encounter with a white woman during a reading event with black writers at Birchbark Books a few years ago. The woman, Holbrook added, explained how surprised she was to learn that black communities are so different.
“I was appalled, yet fascinated,” Holbrook said of the woman’s comment. “I’m sure her comment was sincere. What she said came from a belief that she shares with many, many others.”
Since then, Holbrook has contemplated what she could do to dispel such misconceptions. When the Minnesota State Arts Board recently awarded her a $10,000 grant to develop a manuscript and hold literary public events, it didn’t take long for Holbrook to find the best way to use the funding.
In July, Holbrook invited over a dozen local black women writers for a potluck dinner in her St. Paul home to discuss black identity, publishing and storytelling practices.
“Listening to women from different parts of the world discuss their unique points of view was just incredible,” said Sherrie Fernandez-Williams, author of “Soft: A Memoir” and a project manager at the Loft Literary Center.
The result of that meeting became “More than a Single Story,” which consists of three separate panel discussions with Africa-American, Caribbean and African women writers from the Twin Cities.
“I had been wanting to do something that can contribute to changing the perception that we, black folks, speak with a single voice,” said Holbrook, also an adjunct professor at Hamline University. “I’m grateful to have the opportunity today.”
‘The danger of stereotypes’
Among other things, the first African-American group of panelists — Andrea Jenkins, Shannon Gibney, Mary Moore Easter, Pamela R. Fletcher, Tish Jones and Lori Young-Williams — discussed on Sunday the process of writing, social issues and the barriers that black writers face to break through the book publishing industry.
Andrea Jenkins, a writer and an activist, had publishing advice for the audience: “I am a strong proponent of owning your own work, publishing your own work. It’s happening in the music industry, it’s happening in the film industry. … I don’t see why that can’t be a reality in the book publishing industry, too.”
The speakers also highlighted the “danger of stereotypes” and how mainstream media organizations employ those stereotypes as they tell the stories of communities of color.
“So that’s how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that’s what they become,” Holbrook said, borrowing the words of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie. “She also points out that a single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Though Shannon Gibney, one of the panelists, is mindful of the existing stereotypes, she said she believes that they’re not as widespread as they were just a decade ago. “We think we’re in a different moment … in terms of mass distributed TV … than we were even 10 years ago,” she told the crowd. “I have a lot more hope in this moment than I did 10 years ago.”
The discussion also briefly explored the ongoing national conversation about police brutality and the increasing tensions between the law enforcement and communities of color.
“As you all know, horrific things are happening to the young men in the black community,” Holbrook said. “I have two sons and three grandsons and I’m very concerned about their well-being.”
She added: “But I also have three daughters, four granddaughters and one transgender grandchild. I’m deeply, deeply concerned about our young women as well as our young men. They’re struggling, too. We cannot forget the women.”
Though mostly women, the audience at Sunday’s panel discussion was a racially diverse group, made up of a lot of writers and students. Many said they were inspired by the mere presence of a pool of successful black women writers; others applauded the organizers for the event.
“I thought everything was wonderful,” said Minnesota writer Gail Roddy after the panel. “From this panel, I learned that women can come together with their voices and they can be strong with one voice.”
She added: “These women’s voices were so powerful and strong. We need to see more of this. We need to see it all over the city. Every chance we can get to connect, like this, to bring women’s voices together.”
CheyOnna Sewell, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, said all the topics discussed at the event interested her, including identity and the various perspectives about the book publishing industry.
“They were all relevant and interesting to me,” she added. “It can be inspiring and affirming to hear from other black women.”