Q&A: Brenda Greene Celebrates Black Literature

Charif Shanahan

Brenda Greene has taught literature since 1980 at Medgar Evers College, an institution founded in 1970 to serve the African American community in central Brooklyn, New York, by expanding opportunities for higher education. She also serves as the executive director of the college’s Center for Black Literature, which marks its tenth anniversary in 2014 with a special program of events at its annual National Black Writers Conference from March 27 to March 30.

What is the mission of the Center for Black Literature?
Our mission is to expand, broaden, and enrich the public’s knowledge and aesthetic appreciation of the value of black literature. We hold the annual National Black Writers Conference here at the college; offer local writing workshops, one geared toward senior citizens; broadcast bimonthly interviews with black writers on 91.5 WNYE-FM; and also publish the semiannual journal Killens Review of Arts and Letters, named after John Oliver Killens, the late novelist, activist, and educator who founded the National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College in 1986.

The center was founded in October 2003, but you’re not celebrating the tenth anniversary until this year?
We held smaller events throughout 2013 but wanted to commemorate our decennial with a larger celebration. We decided to align that celebration with the annual conference. We will have a special program with Derek Walcott on March 28, and on the next night we will honor him along with literary icons Margaret Burroughs, Walter Mosley, Quincy Troupe, and Maryse Condé. We’ll also hear presentations of papers by scholars from all over the world and host a poetry café, where poets will read their work at the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. I should say, too, that this conference is for everyone, not only the black community. We encourage all to listen to and learn about the range of writing produced by black writers.

The conference features a wide range of panels: One on science fiction writing, for example, precedes another on race, power, and politics. How do you come up with these topics?
The panel topics generally come from the previous years’ conferences. After a decade of building the Center for Black Literature, we found it necessary to demonstrate the breadth and complexity of…I don’t want to say “black literature,” but literature by black writers. We find it vital to challenge traditional notions of literature by black authors—what we as black people want to, or even must write—as well as what blackness looks like. On and off the page.

Why do you think it’s important to have that conversation now?
I think the question has always been relevant, especially in an increasingly multicultural and multiracial world such as ours, where boundaries have begun to collapse. One hope for our conference is to demonstrate, at least in part, that notions of blackness can and must evolve, as does blackness itself in this country.

What plans do you have for the future?
We hope to continue serving the community through our outreach programs, though funding will always be a concern. Many civic resources are allocated to housing and food programs—vitally important initiatives, to be sure. However, it is only through education that we can increase economic and social mobility, thereby obviating, at least in part, the need for such programs and allowing for real progress to occur. Despite the challenges, I hope we’ll be able to see another ten years of celebrating black literature and culture in central Brooklyn.              

Charif Shanahan is the programs director for the Poetry Society of America and the poetry editor for Psychology Tomorrow Magazine. He is a Cave Canem fellow who holds an MFA in poetry from NYU. His poetry and translations have appeared online and in print.