washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Arts Beat

African American Authors Offer a Peek at the Write Stuff

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2004; Page C05

"If you look at the abundance of writing coming out of the African American community, it's almost like a third Renaissance, after the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts movement," declares Ethelbert Miller as he saunters across the museum floor. "When I look across the country, I see so many writers, writing in so many different genres. These writers should be highlighted, attention should be given."

Miller is the proud curator of "All the Stories Are True: African American Writers Speak," an exhibition honoring nine living, breathing African American writers, currently on view at the Anacostia Museum. The show is Miller's curatorial debut.


Ethelbert Miller curated the literary exhibition "All the Stories Are True," now at the Anacostia Museum. (Cathy Kapulka -- The Washington Post)


Add Arts Beat to your personal home page.

_____Free E-mail Newsletters_____
• News Headlines
• Home & Shopping
• Entertainment Best Bets

"I think of myself as a literary activist," says Miller, director of the Howard University African American Resource Center. "I pull people in."

And pull he did. When the museum invited him to curate a show about storytelling last fall, Miller reached out to an array of authors working in various fields. "I wanted people who, when they talk about their process, would encourage others to write. When you see an exhibit planting those seeds, the museum is doing its job," Miller says.

"He really wants to inspire and excite young people about the possibilities of poetic and artistic expression," says author Charles Johnson. "You can tell that by the authors who are represented -- there's a continuum of writers."

Johnson, who won the National Book Award for his novel "Middle Passage" in 1990, may be the most celebrated author in that continuum. He and recent Oprah Book Club alum Edwidge Danticat are featured in the exhibition along with D.C. poet laureate Dolores Kendrick, children's authors Eloise Greenfield and Walter Dean Myers, esteemed science fiction authors Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany, D.C. poet Kenny Carroll and Zora Neale Hurston biographer Valerie Boyd.

"I'm happy with this show because it's not the typical suspects," Miller says. "I think a good exhibit should have an element of surprise."

The writers' voices are heard in the exhibition, quite literally. Flat-screen televisions hang from the walls, featuring filmed interviews with them. Personal artifacts from the authors' personal workspaces are also on display -- from Butler's old typewriter to a quilt stitched by Boyd's grandmother.

"It was touching to see the things that I value being treated in such a loving way," says Boyd. "I was overwhelmed looking at the materials from other writers and getting a sense of their interior lives. I felt a kinship with them and a fascination with what their writing lives were like."

Process is revealed by these personal effects, as well as inspiration. Visitors are offered a behind-the-scenes perspective of Kendrick's book of poems, "Why the Woman Is Singing on the Corner."

"I lent them the original manuscript with all the mistakes and revisions," Kendrick explains. "Some people think authors have a one-night wonder. I wanted to show otherwise."

Boyd has a similar item on display -- a copy of Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography, "Dust Tracks on a Road," blooming with Post-it notes.

"I went through it very carefully," Boyd says of her research. "Decoding it, questioning, commenting."

Fleur Paysour, the museum's media officer, says various programming events will accompany the exhibit, which opened in June and will continue through the end of the year. Student events are in the works for the fall, she says, as well as speaking appearances by Butler, Delany, Danticat and Myers.

Meantime, Kenny Carroll is coordinating a series of poetry slams at the museum throughout the summer. While honored to participate in the show, Carroll hopes his students at Duke Ellington School of the Arts won't think of him as a "relic."

"I'm just glad I'm not at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum," Carroll joked. "I'm not a total fossil!"

Chances are, young visitors will see Carroll and his colleagues as an inspiration.

"Writers can be heroes to these children," Kendrick says. "That's a legacy they need in this day and time."

Says Boyd, "We have a range of writing like we've never had before. I hope it encourages young people to keep pushing the envelope, pushing genres and pushing themselves."

All the Stories Are True: African American Writers Speak is on view until Dec. 31 at the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, 1901 Fort Place SE. Open Mic Poetry Slams will be held at the museum Friday nights, 7-9:30, through July. Poets wishing to perform should register at AMRSVP@si.edu. For more information, visit anacostia.si.edu.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company