Saturday, November 02, 2013

Celebrating the Umbra Workshop @ CUNY

The Black Arts Movement has rightly received extensive--though still not enough--critical and scholarly treatment as one of the major moments in 20th century African American and American literary and cultural history, but before the founding of the Black Arts Repertory Theater School (BARTS) in Harlem in 1965, another group of young black writers and artists had already gathered in New York City, mostly on the Lower East Side, hosting workshops, throwing parties that brought together people creating in a range of genres, and publishing a magazine, titled Umbra. They were the Umbra workshop. Established on New York's LES in 1961, most of its members had dispersed by 1964, some of them heading up to Harlem, others across the northeast and to the South, still others to California, Europe, and parts beyond. Umbra's influence, through its members' work, projects (like Cannon's Gathering of the Tribes, Reed's numerous literary, cultural and political projects, including the St. Mark's Poetry Workshops, the Before Columbus Foundation, Konch, and The Yardbird Reader, to name a few), teaching and links to parallel and subsequent movements, including the Black Arts Movement and many others.

On Friday, several of the former members, including Steve Cannon, David Henderson, Rashidah Ismaili, Joe Johnson, and Ishmael Reed, convened at the CUNY Graduate Center for two events sponsored by IRADAC and the PhD Program in English, as well as by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, an afternoon seminar and conversation (which I was unable to attend) and a reading, which included not only their work, but also the poetry of some of the notable members who had already passed away, including Calvin Hernton, Tom Dent, Tom Feelings, Raymond Patterson, and Norman Pritchard (an influence on my own poetry, especially in Seismosis).  As the CUNY announcement stated, the Umbra Workshop comprised "an aesthetically diverse group of young artists, many with 'a strong commitment to "nonliterary" black culture.'" During the workshop's active years, elders like Langston Hughes and peers like Andrew Young encouraged the members, while musicians like Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor performed at events. As several members noted, the aesthetic and political foci were intraracial and intercultural, and interracial and intercultural, as non-black writers also participated at times too.

Nearly all of the writers read selections from their work and that of their late peers, though Phoebe Halkowich read a piece based on her conversations with Steven Cannon. In her conversational piece, which was really a performance, one of the things Cannon noted was the general sense of possibility at that moment in history, but also the sense of terror; it was the season of assassinations, with President John F. Kennedy being murdered in 1963, and only two years later, Malcolm X was killed. The society was moving towards upheaval and transformation; the Civil Rights Movement was underway, and Black Americans were shifting in their views of themselves and what they expected and were demanding from the nation. The literary world was hardly immune from these currents and tensions, and, as several members noted, they played out in the workshop and in part led to its demise. Yet it was great to see the members together; the fondness and deep respect each held for the others was quite apparent. It also drew a wide array of New York-area writers who have been inspired (and taught and mentored, etc.) by one or many of the Umbra Workshop's former participants. Many thanks must go to poet, critic and grad student Tonya Foster, who was deeply involved in planning, organizing and pulling off the events, including a festive dinner.

Below are some photos from the event.

Ammiel Alcalay, offering introductory remarks,
with the panelists beside him (l-r, Joe Johnson,
Ishmael Reed, Rashidah Ismaili AbuBakr, and
Phoebe Halkowich with Steve Cannon
Tonya Foster, offering a wonderful
introduction to the panel.
The one and only Steve Cannon
Phoebe Halkowich
David Henderson
Rashida Ismaili AbuBakr
Joe Johnson
Ishmael Reed
The long and lively dinner table

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