"In need another '60s" declares one character in "The Sea Birds Are Still Alive," the new collection of short stories by Toni Cade Bambara. "The energy of the '70s just don't do me nuthin."
In this case the character does not represent fully the thoughts of the author as Bambara, who gave the key-note address yesterday at the Third National Conference of Afro-American Writers vigorously spelled out.
"We are now in a period of healing, study and self-development. Some see the trend as retrogression, I find it quite interesting," said Bambara, groping with "Black Writers and Their People: Craft and Consciousness," the theme of the conference, sponsored by the Howard University Institute for the Arts and Humanities.
"If the hallmark of the last quarter century was revolution, a shifting of global empires, the understanding and the rejection of the American empire, plus the rise of the national consciousness, then the hallmark of this quarter is the transformation of the knowledge gained and the energies developed," said Bambara.
Yet some of the manifestations of this transformation, especially then inertia of social protest and the embracing of spiritualism, have signed a dissipation of spirit to more than a few critics who are still struggling to define the almost-gone '70s.
"I know you wonder what has happened to that Fanon-spouting poet, that combatant historian of the '60s now sitting in a lotus position, humming and studying with the root lady. You think they have lost the gap on what's important when faced with "unemployment and cleverly-organized political crisis," Bambara said.
"But I think these actions are healing systems, a continuation of the demystification of Western ideology. It will help them look at contradictions, look at tensions and fuse them and heal the differences," said Bambara.
As for the status of black literature in the late '70s, Bambara feels the collective body has retained the energy that established a loud call for black identity, political unity and social consciousness in the '60s.
"There are a lot of energy-charged ooks around," she said. "And still there's the shadow-bosing, asking ourselves if the need for a private self is equal to, greater than or less than the collective needs. The balance between the public and the private utterance is the strength of our literature. We are asking ourselves the basic questions: What is our condition, our process and our possibilities? Spiritual concerns have always been a part of our energy and our literature. The critics have never dealt with it as a theme but as a metaphor."
Haki Madhubuti, the intense poet who used the name Don L. Lee in the '60s, found Bambara's analysis essentially correct. "But I think we also have to look at the exceptions to the introspective trends. I think the continued energies are evident also in the life-giving, life-saving institutional efforts that grew out of creative movements of the '60s." Madhubuti works as a publisher and editor for the Chicago-based Institute for Positive Education, which operates a school, a publishing company and a farm.
In the last decade the thoughts of Bambara and Madhubuti often crystalized the varying moods of black writers' conferences. Other participants in this conference, which continues today and Saturday on the Howard main campus and at the Daniel Library, are John O. Killens, George Kent, Carolyn Rodgers, Lance Jeffers, Ted Joans, Douglas Turner Ward and Leslie Lacy.
Bambara was especially pleased with yesterday's meeting because the number of conferences has diminshed since the '60s. "I think the need for exchange remains even if we have gone off in different directions," she said. "I'm always finding new writers in the South, for example, the farmer who writes the church hymns, and there's a critical need for interaction, especially in the South."
Three years ago Bambara moved from her hometown of New York City to Atlanta, Ba., with her 7-year-old daughter, Karma. Before the morning session, Bambara, a tall woman with restless, brown eyes and a strong voice marked by a questioning tone, clutching a coffee cup and cigarette in the Southern Dining Room, a cafeteria near the Watha T. Daniel Library, the site of yesterday's meeting.
"I haven't been up this early since the last time I went fishing," said Bambara, who is in her late 30s. She's ambivalent about Atlanta, enjoying its easy pace and its proximity to the rural communities she wants to be part of, but scorning what she characterizes as its "cultural embargo." As she scrunches up her pear-shaped face, makeup less under a flyway Afro, she asks, "do you know there are only four bass players in town?"
How does she fit into this very personal pattern of living of the '70s? "I'm preparing for my leisure in the '80s," she says, off-handedly. "Honestly, I find the period interesting because people are raising real questions about their lives. We learned in the '60s that no matter how disorganized we were, no matter how many different ideologies, we could mobilize if needed. Now the '70s are a real test of that staying power."
On her agenda is a development of her filmmaking skills, more writing and eventually a fusion of the two into a film company. Also she is planning a women's institute, an organization of tenant associations for farm cooperatives, and doing dream analysis with parents and their children.
Her broad interests fit her version of a person, more a cultural workers than an isolated artist, who will be ready to deal with the next century.
"The future belongs to those who synthesize," she says.