GRAND BOULEVARD — It was a meeting for the history books as dozens of Black Chicago authors gathered in front of the historic George C. Hall Branch Library in Bronzeville on a temperamental late July afternoon. They were preparing to pose for a portrait to illustrate the impact they’ve had on the literary landscape here and beyond.
The event, organized by veteran author and filmmaker Pemon Rami and his wife, producer Maséqua Myers, is a nod to photographer Art Kane’s “A Great Day In Harlem,” an iconic photo in which 58 New York City jazz musicians posed in front of a Harlem brownstone.
Then a young art director at Seventeen Magazine, the ambitious project would be Kane’s first for Esquire Magazine, which helped put out a call for participants through the local musicians’ union.
Soon, the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and Charles Mingus showed up for an undertaking so huge that New York City police officers had to close off the street to traffic.
Kane said he wanted to recreate a “graduation photo or a class picture” of sorts with Harlem as the backdrop, noting the neighborhood was the first stop for many of the musicians arriving in the big city.
The photograph would inspire other “A Great Day…” photos, including “A Great Day In Bronzeville,” in which dozens of local artists gathered for a portrait in front of the South Side Community Art Center in 2005.
Rami told Block Club he was inspired by both Kane’s portrait and the “Bronzeville” one — which included the likes of Theaster Gates and Kerry James Marshall — when he first saw it. After making his own book debut last year, the veteran creative said he met an “incredible amount of authors” who didn’t know each other. That, coupled with the recent attacks on Critical Race Theory and Black history, motivated him to do something.
“I thought it would be a good idea to pull authors together to say, ‘In Chicago, we’re still writing and we’re still reading,'” Rami said.
So Rami thumbed through his contact list and put out a call on social media asking published Black authors to show up, and show up they did. Rami didn’t have an exact number in mind; the objective was to get as many as possible, he said.
In the end, 70 took part.
Recording The Heritage Of Black Chicago Literature
The authors arrived in spurts at first, some keeping an anxious eye on the gray clouds threatening rain as they waited to sign in at tables stationed in front of the library. Soon the spurt became a steady trickle. Some arrived in floral sundresses, others in sneakers, all melanin and love, all clutching their personal masterpieces.
The scribes spanned generations and genres. Some were native born, others the adopted children of Bronzeville’s creative movement.
There were veteran heavyweights like Eve Ewing — the sociologist whose “Ironheart” debut became a hit with comic book buffs old and new — and Mikki Kendall, whose New York Times-bestseller “Hood Feminism” has been republished in countries across the globe and garnering praise from pop ingenues.
Award-winning actress, author and Lookingglass Ensemble member J. Nicole Brooks hugged her way through the crowd, beaming as she caught up with old friends while making new ones.
It was a full circle moment for Ewing, who met Rami 16 years ago when she interviewed him while doing research on Gwendolyn Brooks and the Black Arts Movement.
“My mother used to proudly display the ‘Great Day in Bronzeville’ portrait of all the artists in front of the South Side Community Art Center, so I had a sense of how important that documentation was,” Ewing said. “And because a lot of my work engages with archives, I generally think it’s so important to engage in documentation projects like this. People don’t understand how easy it is to forget and to be forgotten.
“A big part of why I am a writer is because of the legacy and heritage of Black Chicago literature, and taking a moment to record that heritage feels crucial.”
And the photographer, Rami said, had to be Tony Andre Smith.
A Chicago artist by way of Brookhaven, Mississippi, Smith’s black-and-white photographs of the city’s most influential people made an impression on the producer when the two met several years ago. Smith, a published author himself, stood for the portrait, as well.
The choice of backdrop was intentional, as well.
The Hall Branch Library was named for the George Cleveland Hall, a Black surgeon and social activist who once served as president of the Chicago Urban League. It’s also where the city’s first Black branch manager, Vivian G. Harsh, worked.
There were children of legendary authors, like Nora Brooks Blakely, daughter of Gwendolyn Brooks and an author in her own right, holding a copy of the children’s book she co-authored with Bryant Smith, “Moyenda and The Golden Heart.” The literary editor and agent — who manages the intellectual property of her late mother and others — has been friends with Rami and Myers for years.
Chicago’s first poet laureate, avery r. young, posed for the portrait holding his debut book, “Neckbone,” aloft as Smith clicked away, trying to find just the right angle.
Mothers and daughters like Dr. Tracy Crump and B. Poetique joined the photo, as well.
B. Poetique’s “Sacred Field of Delicate Secrets” — the second installment of her “VENTage” series — hit digital bookstores earlier this week. Crump told Block Club her daughter’s foray into becoming a published author inspired her own journey to finish her book, “A.C.E.S. for Students: Strategies for Success in the First Year of College & Beyond,” which published in May.
“When I saw Pemon’s call out on social media I thought, ‘This is our chance to make our mark as Black Chicago authors,'” Crump said. “So I wanted to make my space in history. Black authors are often siloed so I didn’t know how many of us were going to be there, but I was excited to take part in it.”
B. Poetique said the nervousness she felt as an early arrival to the photoshoot gave way to awe as she saw the crowd grow.
“It was dope to see people who look like you doing the things you love to do because you know that it’s possible regardless of what age you are or where you come from,” she said.
Another author, Angie D. Lee, was also awestruck by the throng. She felt her participation in the event was akin to “building a legacy.”
“I was born and raised in Chicago, as well. So I feel very connected to it, especially since I currently live in Bronzeville. Just the image of us speaks volumes. People can see like, ‘Oh, yeah, there are people out here that are still not only writing and reading, but they’re pushing for literature to still remain in public institutions, including the library,'” Lee said.
Surveying the crowd, Rami said the turnout was exactly what he had expected. The clouds gave way to sun as the scribes assembled, a pastiche of generations — defiant and proud — making a declaration: Black words matter.
Rami and Myers hosted a portrait unveiling at the Bronzeville Historical Society last weekend where founder Sherry Williams, another participating author, will have it on permanent display. Another copy will hang in the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library in the collection named for Harsh.
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