Featured Speaker: Kevin Powell
You know this guy. It’s Kevin from the first The Real World house, the guy with the locks … although he’s shaved his head clean at this point. He ran for office in my neighborhood in the last election. It’s still a surprise that he’s the featured speaker. It’s a surprise to me, clearly not a surprise to other people. The man’s been writing for more than 20 years, so I shouldn’t be in any way surprised. I’m just uninformed. I own that. I have to check out his wrting. So far, he’s pleasing me. He’s starting us off with talking about the fallacy of post-racialism (if there was any way for us to be post-racial, would someone have called John Lewis a nigger as he was walking to work last week before passing the health insurance reform bill?). He’s talking about literacy (so close to my heart), so I’m forgiving him his almost-a-preacher way of talking. He’s answering the question, “Is a black literary conference necessary?” talking about the Times article that implied this was niche conference (as if others aren’t?) and that we are practicing a kind of reverse racism.
Now he’s talking about imagination and the power of books to pull you out of your world, your reality, into something else, some place else. He’s pointing out the distinct lack of literature by black writers in his school years. K-12, he had no knowledge of any black writers. He did read Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” (the one about the caged bird singing) , but that no one ever thought to tell the students the poem was written by a black man. He didn’t encounter black writers until he started college at Rutgers.
Ok. He just referenced Lucille Clifton. He’s won me. It’s the first mention of her that I’ve heard since being at the conference.
On publishing: “If you don’t make it happen, it’s not going to happen. And if you do get a book deal, your real work happens after the book is published.”
On writing: “You’ve got to be writing because it’s as natural to you as breathing … because you’ve got something to say.”
And now he’s mentioned J. California Cooper (who I love), and what a great reader she is, how she’s able to captivate her audience with her reading. Did he just coin “Harriet Tubmanism”? The idea of I-got-out-now-let-me-go-back-and-free-someone-else. Nice. He’s on self-hate, too. It’s an important topic. No one’s talked about it too much. (Ok, James McBride tried to in the last panel, and dug himself into a deep, deep hole with it.)
“We have to be honest about how hard it really is to be black writers.”
I love that he’s mentioned LGBT writers four different times in his very short speech. Excellent.
He’s charging us to challenge other institutions to be fully inclusive. Yes, there should be a black writers’ conference, but there should be black people (more than just the token one) at all of the other conferences, too. There should be women, there should be Asians, there should be Latinos, there should be LGBT writers.
“I’m not apologetic about being a black writer. I’m a black writer because I understand our culture and our history … It means I understand what’s going on in Nigeria, but I also understand what’s been going on in Haiti and Brazil.”
I like that he keeps coming back to the idea that we don’t have to choose: that we can write “black stories” and universal stories … and. they. are. the. same. stories.
He’s a great speaker. I’m sold. I was hesitant at the start of this speech. Very. But he’s got the information, and he’s really good at relaying it. This is one of those “wake up, Stacie” moments. In my mind, this man has continued to be the kid from the New York Real World house. Luckily for him, he’s grown and changed, he’s kept moving forward. This is polished, intelligent man in front of me. I’m impressed.