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“The Song Is Unfinished”
The New Literate and Literary and Their Institutions
Emory University

In this article, the author builds on McHenry and Heath’s study of the “literate” and the “literary” and McHenry’s research on “forgotten readers” by examining the often undocumented literacy traditions and practices of men and women of African descent. First, the author traces the legacy of blended traditions of both written and spoken words in African American writing and activism. Continuing with an examination of Black literary and social movements, the author asserts that the recent renaissance of activities around literacy, such as spoken word poetry events as well as writing collectives, contributes to a historical continuum. Ultimately, the author shows the importance of the inextricable link between history, literacy studies, and the teaching of language arts. Keywords: literacy; African American literacy programs; spoken word poetry; community literacy; Shirley Brice Heath; Elizabeth McHenry

Look at me I am we we are old we are the beginning of life we survive the seasons we are new buds upon the highest branches . . . —Ruth Forman (1993)1

Poet and activist Ruth Forman began to reimagine herself and other young poets of the late 20th century as “the young magicians.” Unlike
Author’s Note: I would like to acknowledge my friends and colleagues, Dr. Valerie F. Kinloch and Dr. Andrea Lunsford, for their feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript. Many thanks to Dr. James A. Fisher for emphasizing the importance of history and to Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley for listening attentively to many of these ideas.
WRITTEN COMMUNICATION, Vol. 21 No. 3, July 2004 290-312 DOI: 10.1177/0741088304265475 © 2004 Sage Publications


Maisha T. Fisher


the typical image of magicians with “trick canes,” Forman contended that “with a mere wave of the pen,” these young magicians could “transform grey concrete to yellow brick roads” (p. 86). Emerging from a tradition of poet activism, Forman was a student in June Jordan’s Poetry for the People2 program, in which university students were prepared to work with student poets in public schools. Forman’s proclamation “Look at me/I am we” in a poem dedicated to African American survival conveys that she and her fellow young magicians understand their place in a long line of literate and literary practices and is best summarized in one line: “we are new buds upon the highest branches” (p. 60). Who are these young magicians that Forman writes so bravely about, and what are their institutions for reading, writing, speaking and “doing” the word? And most important, what are the literate and literary traditions from which these “new buds” emerge, and what do they add to the continuum? A decade ago, McHenry and Heath (1994) asserted that the “literate and literary” contributions of African Americans, particularly the middle class, were often omitted in scholarly works. Arguing that efforts in multiculturalism gave various ethnic groups “hooks” or “cultural logos,” McHenry and Heath examined the writing and reading efforts of African Americans, which they believed to be overshadowed by the focus on African American orality. Providing a history of the often undocumented African American literary clubs and journals from 1830 to 1940, McHenry and Heath concluded that “research still has much to tell” about these writers and readers. In a study that followed, McHenry (2002) further explored the history of “forgotten readers” or literary societies in African American communities. McHenry argued that research on the literacy practices of people of African descent needs to “decenter formal education” and begin to examine the institutions these men and women created for themselves either when access to formal institutions was denied or when the opportunities in formal institutions was substandard. To achieve this, McHenry suggested that studies focus on the institutions in which literature has been “enjoyed, discussed and debated” by people of African descent. The challenges that McHenry and Heath put forth in their study of the literate and the literary and McHenry’s call for “new directions” on research related to African American literacy practices are still concerns that research on reading, writing, and literacy needs to explore and address. The aim of this article is to examine the legacy of literacy from which the “new literate and literary” have evolved, in addition to



their current literacy practices, which include participation in spoken word poetry open mics, writing groups, and anthologies of poetry and prose. Additionally, this article seeks to examine the institutions in which they exchange writing, reading, and orality as part of the historical continuum that McHenry and Heath’s (1994) work began to unfold and that McHenry (2002) extensively documented in her study of literary societies of the early 19th century through the early 20th century. Like the writers and readers in McHenry and Heath’s work, the new literate and literary have created their own institutions for holding forums and exchanging ideas; cafés have been transformed into literary salons and bookstores into educational centers. In a study of spoken word poetry open mic venues and Black-owned and -operated bookstores (Fisher 2003a, 2003b), I found that many men and women of African descent were turning to these communities to access both spoken and written words. In these spaces, speaking was a natural outgrowth of reading and writing, but most important, all three were linked with a sense of purpose. In this article, I integrate the experiences and perspectives of Michael Datcher and Gabrilla Ballard, two “expressionists” from the larger study who embody this tradition and illuminate this link between history and the present. First, this article addresses the place of “orality” beside “literacy” in the vernacular tradition of African American writing. Next, the article begins to show the history of creating and maintaining grassroots literacy learning efforts by unpacking the legacy of “secret literacy” and “self-help schools” in history of Africans in the Americas. Third, the article looks at Black literary movements that have served as models for this recent renaissance of words and the emergence of independent Black institutions (IBIs). What may appear at the onset as a departure from the discussion of the intersections of orality and literacy and more of a historical analysis of Black institutions is strategic and purposeful. To understand orality and the acts of speaking to be important aspects of literacy is to understand that the legacy of literacy for people of African descent has historically been a precursor to action. Last, the article addresses the recent manifestations of community-based literacy spaces and the anthologizing of this new generation and their commitment to “the new era of Black words” (Alexander, 1998). In sum, the new literate and literary understand how each generation contributes to a historical continuum of literate practices and values that spring from a tradition of written and spoken words. Transcending class, age, and ethnicity while refuting monolithic views of Blackness, these new writers and

Maisha T. Fisher


readers reclaim orality as part of their tradition and believe it to be an extension of the written word.


In a study that frames African American poetry as part of vernacular culture, Brown (1999) asserted that African American poetry and writings were generally written to be shared aloud. Arguing that writing extends from aspects of orality such as speaking and singing, Brown offered a framework for blurring boundaries between the written and spoken words. Without the oral exchange, according to Brown, the written is dependent on the spoken:
The African American poet uses scriptings as a way to communicate voicings. Writing is an extension of speaking or singing. African world cultures value word skills, poetry making, story telling, and the literary extensions of these more public activities; they rely on an audience that is hearing as well as reading. (p. 29)

In considering Brown’s analysis of how African American poets work, one finds important educational implications for the teaching of literacy. At the very least, one finds it useless to continuously dichotomize “oral” and “literate” practices. On a practical level, one finds extended opportunities for students to use multiple forms of expression if they are helpful to their composition processes. Furthermore, Brown’s analyses shifted the focus to the importance of purpose in such writing; the emphasis of the audience possessing a key role in the production and performance of African American poetry presupposes that the composer or performer has to have something he or she believes is important enough to be shared aloud. Brown described African American oratory as having a “double consciousness.” According to Brown’s theory, it seems that people of African descent do not merely straddle orality and literacy but that orality is a major force for literacy; it is the spoken word that gets heard by the community. Early research on the African American oral tradition had similar implications; Smitherman (1999) explained that part of the African worldview is the belief that “written documents are limited in what they can teach about life and survival in the world” (p. 202). A strong example of Smitherman’s argument can be found in a



study that examined African American female “speakers and writers” in the North from 1830 to 1880. Peterson (1995) asserted that a figure such as Sojourner Truth used “Africanisms” as well as “standard literary conventions” to produce literary expression. By using these conventions, Truth not only created a space for Black women’s role in political activism; she made her lectures accessible to a wider audience by mixing genres.3 In sum, it was not just enough to write; orality was a way to breathe life into words and mobilize people of African descent.

Tracing the “Black struggle for literacy” during the 19th century, Holt (1990) argued that the goal of education for Black Americans was “social as well as personal improvement to uplift the people, to make conditions better” (p. 93). Referencing accounts of enslaved Africans, Holt explained that the irony of beatings administered by slave masters to their slaves who dared to become literate reinforced the importance of education. Although there are accounts of slave owners who taught their slaves some reading, writing, and math skills, Holt highlighted the contributions of Black men and women who held “secret schools” in which they passed on whatever reading and writing skills they had to others. Often, these schools were without walls and assembled wherever an able teacher and a willing student were available. Holt noted that White, northern missionaries are often documented as the major contributors to African Americans’ education. Acknowledging their “heroic” efforts, Holt maintained that there is a lack of scholarship that shows the determination of African Americans to get their own education. Holt referred to the educational system established by Blacks after slavery as a “chain letter of instruction” (p. 94), whereby people shared the little information they had with one another and continued to pass it on. During the Civil War and the Reconstruction period, Black teachers often conducted their own classes in self-help schools with whatever material and space they had. According to Gutman (1987), sometimes, a “cellar” or an “old school-house” was used as a literacy learning space. Even if a teacher was “an old negro in spectacles” or “a colored woman, who as a family servant had some privileges” (p. 270), he or she shared

Maisha T. Fisher


whatever literacy skills he or she had with other Black people. Former slaves4 actively sought educational opportunities for their children (Morris, 1981). From these accounts, we can trace how a tradition of reading, writing, and speaking became a part of doing as well. In other words, after one became literate, it was then the responsibility of that individual to make a contribution to his or her immediate and at times at-large community.

Suggesting that readers, writers, and speakers who emerged during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s brought together oral and written traditions of African Americans, McHenry and Heath (1994) examined the ways in which various forms of expression overlapped. Readers were being introduced to many writers through the publications of literary clubs and societies, while writers were highly sought after for lectures. Characterized as a “cultural flowering” (Gates & McKay, 1997), the Harlem Renaissance affected not only Black people in United States but those throughout the African diaspora, such as African and West Indian students in Paris and throughout the Caribbean. This observation was of course made earlier in Alain Locke’s (1925) The New Negro. Locke also asserted that “Negro Life” in Harlem was taking advantage of the opportunity for “group expression” and “self determination” (p. 7). As literary scholar, Arnold Rampersad (1997, p. 936) noted that “for a people hardly more than a half century removed from slavery” and a people “enmeshed in the chains of dehumanizing segregation,” the Harlem Renaissance had many successes. In the literary movements that followed between 1940 and 1960, there was even more of a push to create work that addressed social issues that emerged from events such as World War II; the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North; labor disputes; desegregation; and the independence of African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Algeria (McDowell & Spillers, 1997). Texts such as Richard Wright’s (1940) Native Son (1940) and Lorraine Hansberry’s (1959) play A Raisin in the Sun confronted race relations in the United States, depicting Black Americans’ frustration with the “American dream” while attempting to demonstrate the humanity of Black Americans during intense social and political turmoil. Two poets who emerged during this period, Margaret Walker



and Gwendolyn Brooks, would eventually be mentors in the Black Arts Movement that followed in the 1960s. Brooks, known for writing about the conditions of working-class Black Americans in Chicago, led writing workshops for poets and worked tirelessly with Black youth affiliated with gangs. Setting a new precedent, Brooks was committed to getting her work out to the community: “Brooks’ involvement in poetry workshops with the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago youth gang, and her expressed desire to get poetry, in her words, into ‘tavern atmosphere[s], on street corners,’ and in prisons are examples of this outreach” (McDowell & Spillers, 1997, p. 1327). Brooks believed that words incited action. As a poet, Brooks used her craft as a tool to access the humanity of Black youth. The tradition of transforming physical spaces such as a “street corner” into teaching and learning settings exemplified Holt’s (1990) concept of the chain letter of instruction. Brooks created literacy learning spaces wherever there were people willing to participate. Brooks inspired many poets and writers in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s5; when her work became nationally recognized, she chose Black presses for most of her writing. Following the same ideology of poets such as Brooks, the Black Arts Movement took place at a time when many Black artists unapologetically linked their writing, poetry, visual, and performing arts with the problems of Black America. The activism and connection between art and “cultural nationalism” was viewed by the cofounders of the Black Arts Movement as the antithesis of the Harlem Renaissance. In a defining essay on the Black Arts Movement, Larry Neal (1971) critiqued the Harlem Renaissance for upholding a particular kind of “mythology” or romanticized version of Black life. The Black Arts Movement, according to Neal, used art to confront and challenge Black people’s status in the United States. However, both movements contributed to the blended traditions of spoken and written words through poetry, theater, public lectures, and publishing demonstrating the double consciousness of orality and literacy. There was an expectation during the Black Arts Movement that literacy and literature would lead to changes that would enhance life for people of African descent. Linked to the Black Power Movement, the Black Arts Movement occurred at a time when many Black artists believed that their work had to address the needs and passions of Black America, or else it was irrelevant. In his essay “Toward a Definition: Black Poetry of the Sixties (After LeRoi Jones),” Don L. Lee (1971a) (now Haki Mahdubuti) compared and contrasted these movements:

Maisha T. Fisher


Black poetry of the sixties is not too different from black poetry of the forties and fifties; there has always existed in the verse a certain amount of blackness. . . . The new and powerful voices of the sixties came to light mainly because of the temper of the times; it accented the humanrights struggle for black people in the world. (p. 238)

Madhubuti, a poet and teacher and the founder of Third World Press,6 aligned the Black Arts Movement with the work of poets such as Brooks and other writers of the 1940s and 1950s. Additionally, the emphasis on the “human-rights struggle for black people in the world” was exemplified through the commitment to create and maintain IBIs that cultivated literacy and learning, such as printing presses and schools. Third World Press was a part of the Institute for Positive Education,7 which included Black Books Bulletin (BBB), the New Concept School (both discussed in the following sections of this article), and other community-based programs. Prior to the founding of Third World Press in Chicago, Dudley Randall founded Broadside Press in Detroit in 1960.8 There was an understanding that for Black people to share their ideas and disseminate information among one another that they deemed relevant, they would have to create those opportunities for themselves rather than depend on someone else to do it for them. This ideology permeated this time period. For example, when Chicago-based Negro Digest (later Black World) emerged during the Black Arts Movement, it became a vehicle for poets and writers to share their work, in addition to being a bulletin board for information on new publications and literary contests. When I worked as a personal assistant to poet and activist June Jordan during my 1st year in graduate school, I presented her with a copy of one of her pieces published in a copy of Black World that my father had preserved over the years. She explained to me that Black World was a way that authors such as herself could have conversations and debates with one another; these writers often met in the pages of Black World before they met in person. Although the journal began as Negro Digest in 1961, the name was officially changed to Black World in 1970. Negro Digest and Black World editor Hoyt Fuller,9 in a 1971 interview with BBB, explained the reason for this change. Fuller wanted Black people “wherever black people happen to be” to understand that they were grappling with similar issues and could use a literary journal as a way to address these issues. The push to “solve common problems” was the strength of blending the oral and the written together; if words were both spoken and performed in



a way that would inspire others through art, speeches, and lectures as well as made accessible through print for dissemination to Black people in the United Sates and abroad, there would be a global “bulletin” for these readers, writers, speakers and, as Peterson (1995) characterized, “doers” of the word. This metaphorical bulletin for Black writers, readers, and publishers was part of the mission for the Institute of Positive Education’s BBB. BBB included a “continuing” bibliography of books published by Black presses and about Black people globally. Don Lee (1971b), the editor of BBB, explained that the aim of the publication was to provide information to the many mentors in the Black community:
In our small way, THE BLACK BOOKS BULLETIN will try to supply positive information and images to black people who influence other black people, such as teachers (elementary, high school, college, etc.), postal workers, policemen, librarians, students, doctors, lawyers, dentists, nurses, writers, artists and others. It is premature to think that we can reach the masses of black people . . . but we do feel that we can reach some of the people who influence and direct the lives of others. (p. 25)

BBB was concerned with reaching not only “formal” educators but also men and women who were potential mentors to Black people through everyday interactions with service workers, health care professionals, and artists. At the core of this mission statement was the belief that teaching and learning occurred daily and that part of literacy learning for people of African descent included these spoken transactions. Also central to this statement was the belief that learning could take place wherever there is a culture of respect between participants. During this time, there was a movement to create schools in which these values and beliefs would be infused into the curricula. The same poets, writers, and artists who fueled the Black Arts Movements and the creation of printing presses and journals were also advocates for the education of children of African descent.


By the 1970s, the vision of self-determined education shown in the secret schools during the enslavement of Africans in America as well as self-help schools and literary salons during the Reconstruction

Maisha T. Fisher


once again became a priority to many Black Americans. However, in this era, there was a shift in the focus from proving one’s respectability, or “citizenry” as McHenry (2002) documented, to personal growth and community development in the same way artists and expressionists in the Black Arts Movement asserted themselves in a literary tradition. Following an era of writing and arts that specifically addressed the needs of people of African descent, Black community schools and African-centered schools, or IBIs (Lee, 1992), were being organized throughout the United States. In an article contextualizing the emergence of IBIs in the 1970s and arguing for their relevance, Lee (1992) asserted that the organizers of these African-centered schools were proactive in creating learning opportunities for Black children:
Rather than simply complain and react, the independent African centered school movement has taken a proactive stance, defining within a community context the possibilities and gifts that Black children offer the world, and creating institutions to manifest its ideals. Institutions validate knowledge, help to shape vision, inculcate values, and provide the foundation for community stability. (p. 161)

IBIs are important to the tradition of literate and literary communities because they represent the intersections of literacy, education, and activism. For example, African-centered schools such as the Brooklyn-based Uhuru Sasa, founded in 1971, shared its space with the East. In addition to housing the Uhuru Sasa school, the East also included a performance space, a store specializing in fresh produce, and an independent newspaper (Black News). Located in the BedfordStuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the East provided many IBIs with a blueprint for a working infrastructure:
Walking into the East is like entering into a new Black world. You are engulfed by the aroma of fragrant incense as you gaze upon entire walls of colorfully painted murals of Black heroes and symbols . . .at the East everyone works. Someone is always at the front selling Black books and periodicals, while in the back there may be a film, a community meeting. . . . Upstairs during the weekdays there are classes in session, both in the afternoon and evening for both adults and children—the young, old, men and women. (“The East,” 1971, p. 28)

According to Lee (1992), African-centered schools have valuable lessons for American public schools; children are placed at the center



of a value system that includes teachers, parents, the neighborhood or community, and the community of professional peers. Another important link is how poets and writers saw themselves and their work as part of a larger frame that included education in their communities. These values echoed those of the literary societies documented in McHenry and Heath’s (1994) work as well as McHenry’s (2002) comprehensive study of such communities. For example, McHenry described the importance of reading aloud along, with recitation in 19th century literary societies to sharpen oral and written skills while building confidence in their members. IBIs also valued building confidence in youth of African descent:
Our goal was to develop an educational institution within Chicago’s Black community that would teach African American history and culture as well as imbue the values of Black self-love and cooperation among the children it served. Moreover, it was envisioned that this institution would operate independent of resources and influences from outside the Black community. (p. 162)

The goals of IBIs such as New Concept Development Center (NCDC) mirrored the vision of people of African descent throughout the United States. Poets, writers, and activists Amina and Amiri Baraka organized the African Free School in Newark, New Jersey, once again emphasizing the importance of literacy being guided by a sense of purpose. The African Free School, like NCDC, offered traditional courses found in most public schools, including history, reading, spelling, and math, while also incorporating Swahili “in relationship to English,” as well as hieroglyphics. An important aspect of these schools that should be emphasized was their commitments to teach all traditional subjects found in most American public schools; there was never any question that students should learn to read, write, and speak English. As stated in all capital letters in Uhuru Sasa’s handbook, “STUDENTS MUST BE ABLE TO READ AND WRITE FLUENTLY.” However, in addition to these skills, Black community schools were dedicated to cultivating leadership and organizing qualities in people of African descent. In the next two sections, I introduce poets and writers who embody the link between the history of literacy practices for people of African descent in the context of the United States and their current institutions. For the new literate and the literary and their communities,

Maisha T. Fisher


there is a need to experience language communally, and not only for the sake of the printed page, much like their predecessors.


In a study of two spoken word poetry open mic events and two Black-owned and -operated bookstore poet and author events in northern California, I examined the literacy practices of event organizers, expressionists, and audience members (Fisher 2003a, 2003b). In addition to being a participant in these spaces, keeping ethnographic field notes, and videotaping events, I conducted interviews with 70 participants ranging in age from 19 to 69 years. One theme that emerged from these interviews was the participants’ sense of history and how they viewed themselves in a continuum of poets, writers, readers, musicians, and activists who participated in similar literacy communities. Although most people I interviewed illuminated this theme, I have integrated the experiences and perspectives of two participants who fluidly discussed their writing and purposes as part of a larger story for people of African descent. Michael Datcher (2001) of Los Angeles, a poet and the author of the national bestselling memoir Raising Fences: A Black Man’s Love Story,10 and Gabrilla Ballard, a poet, songwriter, and musician from New Orleans, participated in both spoken word poetry open mic events at the Jahva House Café Speak Easy and the Jamaica House Mahogany in my study. Additionally, Datcher did readings of Raising Fences in both Marcus Books and Carol’s Books. Writers’ workshops and collectives in addition to open mic events for expressionists such as Datcher and Ballard have become ways for many writers of African descent to share their work and get constructive feedback. These forums bring together oral, aural, and written traditions; the formats for the writing workshops generally include time for interacting with texts in addition to sharing the works aloud. Open mic events welcome all forms of expression, such as poetry, singing, rapping, and sometimes dance; the prevailing theme is that everyone has a message worth conveying. Even though I met Datcher and Ballard at the venues in my study, I learned that their participation evolved from previous experiences in similar literacy communities. Two collaborative reading, writing, and performing groups were part of the foundation for Datcher and



Ballard: the Anansi Writers Workshop in Los Angeles and the NOMMO11 Literary Society in New Orleans, respectively. Both Datcher and Ballard noted these two spaces as being critical to their development as writers and expressionists through rituals of performance, practice, and feedback that helped them build confidence. In a section of South Central Los Angeles lies the “village” of Leimert Park. This village is home to many Black businesses, including the World Stage. Serving as a performance space, the World Stage was established in 1992 by jazz drummer Billy Higgins and community-based poet Kamau Daáood. In Raising Fences, Datcher recounts his first encounter with Daáood in a chapter simply titled “World Stage.” Datcher had been conducting a writing workshop for performance poets in his home and learned of the World Stage writers workshop. Datcher wanted to revive the workshop and went to Leimert Park to introduce himself to Daáood and discuss this possibility. Daáood explained to Datcher in a scene from this chapter that the World Stage was a “sacred space.” Although Datcher did not go into details in the text, it is clear that Daáood trusted Datcher to carry on this important tradition. The writers workshop at the World Stage began before the open mic. Datcher, who was in his early 30s at the time of our interview, explained to me that he had to learn about the history of the World Stage and the musicians and poets who became the pillars of this creative community. Elders such as Daáood and Higgins passed this history on to poets such as Datcher, who continued to foster this spirit among their peers. Datcher told me,
Artists come in a very serious way—and [with] much respect and much love I should say as well—and provide very healthy feedback. We encourage you to keep in mind that there blood is running between these lines . . . this workshop is so dynamic, so alive, and people are thinking and readers are getting really incredible feedback. (interview, March 26, 2002)

Datcher’s inclusion of the World Stage in his memoir marked an important time in his personal development when he began to be critical with his own writing. In Raising Fences, Datcher noted that those who “workshopped” their poems often became the most appreciated poets on the mic:
There is no sign-up list for the workshop segment. The first person to bound onstage in front of the mic gets to read and receive feedback.

Maisha T. Fisher


After two years of being involved, I realize that the poets who workshop the most have become the best poets. As a result, the workshop section has become extremely popular. Poets who plan to receive feedback arrive early and cluster in the front-row seats. As soon as the person onstage finishes and steps one foot off the stage, the would-be-next workshoppers aggressively jump on. If it’s close the crowd determines who was first. This good-natured ritual sends the message that while others flee from constructive criticism, the World Stage poets are hungry to get better. (p. 203)

The ritual of racing to the stage and the mic at the workshop showed the passion and eagerness these writers expressed for their developing writing and speaking skills. Writers were dedicated to both traditions and did not spent time assigning a hierarchy to either. The mic and stage were an extension of the journal and pen. Datcher emphasized that the workshop attracted a “full range” of the Black community “across economic lines and across ideology.” At the time of our interview, the Anansi Writers Workshop proudly claimed six published books by participants. Datcher often told readers at the open mics and bookstore events that his memoir was a “long poem” that he considered part of the blues tradition in African American music. Datcher described the blues tradition as growing out of “Blacks being captured as prisoners of war from Africa and brought to America and enslaved.” In addition to evolving from the blues tradition, Datcher considered his writing to also flow from jazz music. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was as influential to Datcher’s writing as the poets and writers with whom he shared the World Stage. Because the World Stage was both a jazz performance space and home to the writers workshop, both musicians and poets saw each other as foundational to their creativity. During his composition process, Datcher said that he listened to Miles Davis’s famous album Kind of Blue, which Datcher considered a “collage of Blackness,” or stories that came from multiple experiences of being Black in the context of the United States. Raising Fences chronicles Datcher’s life growing up in South Central Los Angeles with a hardworking single mother and a life of yearning for “picket fence dreams,” which Datcher described as “a played-out metaphor in the white community but one still secretly riding the bench in black neighborhoods nationwide” (p. 3). Through his participation in the writing workshop and confronting issues in his own life, Datcher developed the courage to tell his story. Through the merging of music, poetry and prose Datcher carved Raising Fences:



It’s just me trying to tell my hard luck life in a way that is artistic. I’m a poet so I really believe in the power of language. . . . I can work it, twist it, turn it and kind of meld it into patterned tapestry. So I wanted to tell the story with a certain level of linguistic delicacy . . . o you would recognize the people in these stories, the voices that were talking to you in this book. You recognize the rhythm. (interview, March 26, 2002)

Datcher also saw his memoir as being a way to convey that men of African descent were both “human and beautiful.” Much like members of the literary societies who saw their engagement with literature as demonstrating to their former enslavers that they were not inferior, Datcher viewed writing as a way for people of African descent to be respected in the world. However, Datcher also believed that having a facility with words both spoken and written was critical, and open mics and Black bookstores were an important part of fostering this skill:
If you can use the language in a way that is interesting, different and powerful, people will respect that. For a business to deal in the production of Black creation, of Black imagination is beautiful, and it’s a symbol of hope. Because with education comes the opportunity to advance in life and to uplift the race if you would. (interview, March 26, 2002)

I also met Gabrilla Ballard at the Jahva House Speak Easy open mic. She was 23 at the time of the study and new to the northern California poetry scene. However, she was familiar with similar networks in her native New Orleans. After relocating to California to do work in education reform, Ballard sought the Jahva House Speak Easy open mic because she wanted to establish herself in a community of Black expressionists who were also community activists. Ballard considered many of her poem-songs to be messages to people of African descent. The first night I heard Ballard, she performed a poem-song titled “Are You Ready?” while playing an acoustic guitar:
Are you ready to stop living the lie? Are you ready to open your eyes? Are you ready to give up your life? Are you ready?

Maisha T. Fisher


By the end of the piece, Ballard had strategically changed you to we and invited the open mic community to participate using the calland-response format. Ballard later explained in an interview that she wrote this piece with people of African descent in mind:
When I say [in the song] “we build up walls—this ain’t us” I mean that historically and even now in certain areas of the world we are connected. We are a community and we take care of each other. I think sometimes we are so concerned about being hurt or failing in others’ eyes that we don’t even try . . . if you mess up, okay you messed up but at least you tried! (interview, May 14, 2002)

Because she worked with elementary school–aged students in urban settings, Ballard’s work was sometimes influenced by her efforts to help them see their own value and talents. Ballard believed that her own self-confidence emerged writing and reading in partnership with public performance. During our interview, Ballard explained that her experience in a youth-centered church that encouraged her to write, direct, and perform plays in addition to her participation in an African-centered school and eventually her membership in a collective of writers, readers, and speakers called the NOMMO Literary Society were her foundation for being engaged in literacy practices. In her church, Ballard and the youth in the congregation were often asked to write plays about different issues in their communities. Ballard fondly remembered writing and directing a play about drugs in the community: “My spirit was nurtured in speaking up against injustice . . . when properly nurtured children can do anything. Who knows what they grow up to be!” Both the school and the literary society were part of the work that Kalamu ya Salaam did in the New Orleans area. Salaam fostered the talents of young poets and writers in New Orleans in the same way Daáood did in Los Angeles:
[Ahiadiana] was a school that was based in African, African American culture. It’s an independent school and the curriculum was structured by the teachers but it was very holistic. It was hands on; it taught us to have love, respect and just honor for who we are as Africans—diasporic Africans. You know that’s important because many of [the teachers] had Pan-Africanist views; we didn’t feel separate from the continent, you know what I mean? And some people argue that the school prepared us for a world that doesn’t exist. I don’t agree with that. I feel that the school created-prepared us to create the world that we wanted to



exist because what other reason are we teaching anyway? (interview, May 14, 2002)

Ahiadiana introduced Ballard to a world where she believed students were able to be active in their learning processes and made aware of the history of Black people in the United States and abroad. Ballard said tha teachers consistently consulted students about projects and what they wanted to contribute to the learning community. Ballard’s love of reading, writing, and performing were only beginning to be cultivated at this time. Even after Ballard left the school, Salaam continued to be her mentor and eventually published one of her poems in an anthology. Salaam heard Ballard perform her poem “When Daddy Dies” about the loss of her father when Ballard was 15; Salaam helped her edit the poem, and Ballard explained that “from that point on,” she continued to write and became a member of the NOMMO Literary Society. Salaam established the NOMMO Literary Society12 in New Orleans in 1995; at the time of the study, the society’s members met weekly to do a reading, share their writing orally, and provide feedback to one another. It was a multigenerational writers collective, and Salaam has provided opportunities for many members to publish their work in anthologies. On the second Friday of every month, the NOMMO Literary Society held a public reading at the Community Book Center, also located in New Orleans. The physical space of the NOMMO Literary Society had countless shelves of books written by and about people of African descent throughout the world. In addition to books, Salaam provided the society with a comprehensive collection of music, including jazz, blues, and other forms of Black music. All of these materials were available to members of the society, and tables and chairs were available so that people could make themselves at home. Both Datcher and Ballard understood their writing to be part of a larger continuum of literate and literary practices for people of African descent. For example, Ballard saw the NOMMO Literary Society and the open mics as part of the same tradition as the church and Black community school she attended. These spaces helped her develop a writing identity grounded not only in poetry and prose but music and performance as well. Similarly, Datcher saw his foundation as a poet based in blues and jazz music traditions as a foundation to writing his memoir. Datcher and Ballard believed that having community-based role models such as Daáood and Salaam was critical to their development as writers; these mentors were not only poets and

Maisha T. Fisher


writers but also activists and historians in their communities. Institutions such as the World Stage and the NOMMO Literary Society as well as the venues in which I observed both Datcher and Ballard were safe spaces where they could share this work with active audiences and get critical feedback while building confidence in their writing and speaking skills.

During an interview I conducted as part of the larger study with scholar and educator Wade Nobles,13 I asked him if he believed that the readers, writers, speakers, and doers who are visible in the spoken word poetry venues and bookstore events have come full circle. We had just attended a reading by Ilyasah Shabazz, the middle daughter of the late Dr. Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X, at Marcus Books in Oakland, California. The reading attracted not only people from Dr. Shabazz’s and Malcolm X’s generation such as Dr. Nobles but also the peers of Ilyasah Shabazz. Dr. Nobles explained, “I don’t know if the circle’s coming back around . . . I think that the song is unfinished . . . it’s still unfolding” (interview, June 16, 2002). Indeed, the “song is unfinished” and “unfolding” in grassroots literacy communities, anthologies (see the Appendix), self-published books, and recordings. However, as the title of Salaam’s (1998) anthology 360°: A Revolution of Black Poets suggests, there is an acknowledgment that the up-and-coming writers of African descent are well aware of the poets, writers, musicians, and performers of the word from past literary movements. So what is “new” about the new literate and literary, and what has remained the same? Participants in this recent renaissance of open mics, writing groups, and published work are determined, much like their predecessors, to maintain literacy communities in which they can access reading, writing, discussion, and debates through poetry, prose, and other forms of expression. Another similarity is that the venues in which these events are held often serve multiple functions. For example, the Jahva House Speak Easy open mic at which I first met and heard Datcher and Ballard was a café that was transformed into a cultural center in the evening. The owners of these establishments share their spaces with the community and organize events that meet the needs of people of African descent. As Datcher noted, these businesses were not solely interested in generating income; they also invested in the “production of Black



creation.” This outreach is an extension of the sense of responsibility that evolved from the chain letter of instruction, or passing on knowledge and information, in the same spirit as the IBIs of the 1960s and 1970s. Part of passing on knowledge and information for the literate and literary of African descent was making the word accessible in print through oral presentation. The Anansi Writers Workshop at the World Stage and the NOMMO Literary Society incorporated time for writing, revising, and also sharing work orally; there was an understanding that words were not solely for display but to incite action. There has also been a shift in the makeup of the communities McHenry and Heath (1994) examined and the current practitioners of the word. I use the term shift because I view these communities as part of a continuum that does not lend itself to dichotomizing terms such as contrast. Current practitioners of the word cut across socioeconomic lines. Ballard considered this to be one of the most important aspects of the open mic communities:
It’s just a mix of all kinds of us. It’s like people who are educated—formally educated or institutionally educated. Then there are people who are self-educated . . . just from every class background you can think of. We are there. . . . Come as you are. (interview, May 14, 2002)

There are other shifts in the continuum of the literate and literary of African descent; one of the most compelling is that although newer poets and writers in theory have access to the institutions that the readers and writers of the 19th century did not, they are still organizing spaces separate and distinct from formal institutions by choice. This was also evident during the Black Arts Movement and the rise of Black community schools. One reason for this may be that despite “access” to these formal institutions, there is still a pervasive lack of recognition of new forms of poetry, writing, and thinking about language. This quest for supplemental knowledge in addition to alternative teaching and learning drew Black expressionists to these spaces. Part of these alternative methods is the inclusion of music; poets and writers such as Datcher and Ballard understand Black music traditions such as the blues, jazz, and hip hop to be inspiration for their writing processes. This is evident in the fact that Ballard can play her guitar at an open mic, and her work is still considered poetry. The inclusion of DJs at the open mic events is another example of the importance of music. Leimert Park’s World Stage is a home to both

Maisha T. Fisher


jazz musicians and poets, while the NOMMO Literary Society has as many music recordings available to its members as it does books. Music is simply a part of the fabric of these spaces. And finally, to some degree, there is still a belief that literacy is linked to freedom; however, the freedom does not come from acquiring skills often associated with literacy or even mastering literary texts. The freedom now is in the ability to use words and literacy skills to challenge and critique as well as to motivate and inspire newer generations of readers, writers, and speakers. With a sense of history, novice writers, readers, and speakers can create their own spaces in this historical continuum. Teaching literature and literacy for young people should involve the teaching of history as well as integrate the current movement of expressionists. There is still much work needed that examines the literacy communities in which people of African descent are members by choice. Through this inquiry, we can begin to unpack what it is about these spaces that continuously draw people to participate while attempting to understand how these events provide an important context for the way words are valued and shared.

Appendix Selected Bibliography of Spoken Word Poetry Anthologies The following anthologies try to show the link between historical literary movements and current practices in writing, spoken word poetry and hip hop; this is evident in the inclusion of newer and more established poets and writers.
Anglesey, Z. (Ed.). (1999). Listen up! Spoken word poetry. New York: Ballantine. Gilbert, D. (Ed.). (1998). Catch the fire!!! A cross-generational anthology of contemporary African-American poetry. New York: Riverhead. Medina, T., Bashir, S. A., & Lansana, Q. A. (Eds.). (2002). Role call: A generational anthology of social & political Black literature & art. Chicago: Third World. Medina, T., & Rivera, L. R. (Eds.). (2001). Bum rush the page: A def poetry jam. New York: Three Rivers. Nommogeneity. (2000). Pot liquor for writer’s block. Claremont, CA: Ubwenge. Powell, K. (Ed.). (2000). Step into a world: A global anthology of the new Black literature. New York: John Wiley. Powell, K., & Baraka, R. (Eds.). (1992). In the tradition: An anthology of young Black writers. New York: Harlem River Press. Reed, I. (Ed.). (2003). From totems to hip hop: A multicultural anthology of poetry across the Americas, 1900-2002. New York: Thunder’s Mouth.



1. This is from Ruth Forman’s poem “A Split Tree Still Grows” in We Are the Young Magicians, which was part of the Barnard New Woman Poets Series. 2. See Muller and the Blueprint Collective’s (1995) June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint for a more extensive description of the program. 3. It is important to note that people of African descent have varied perspectives on the use of Black English. For a more current discussion of this, please see Rickford and Rickford’s (2000) Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. 4. Robert C. Morris (1981) offered a comprehensive treatment of the Freedmen’s Bureau and its role in the education of Blacks in Reading, ‘Riting, and Reconstruction: The Education of Freedmen in the South 1861-1870. 5. The Caribbean Artists Movement in London coincided with the Black Arts Movement; also influenced by the Black Power Movement in the United States and abroad, the Caribbean Artists Movement also blended oral and written traditions. See Anne Walmsley’s (1992) The Caribbean Artists Movement 1966-1972: A Literary and Cultural History. 6. Third World Press, located in Chicago, celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2002. 7. The Institute for Positive Education was founded in 1970 by group of men and women in Chicago in an effort to provide services to Chicago’s Black community. 8. See Julius E. Thompson’s (1998) Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995. 9. Hoyt Fuller was also the editor of Ebony and Jet magazines, which are still published. Historian, poet, and author Kalamu ya Salaam described Hoyt Fuller as “a Black intellectual with near-encyclopedic knowledge of Black literature and seemingly inexhaustible contacts” (1997). Negro Digest and Black World were often compared to CRISIS and OPPORTUNITY of the 1920s. At the time of the aforementioned interview with Fuller, the journal was monthly, with a circulation of approximately 180,000, reaching Black people of all class backgrounds and interests. 10. At the time of the study, Datcher informed me that Raising Fences was being strongly considered for adaptation for a film that would feature actor Will Smith. 11. Nommo is a West African concept that refers to the “sacred word.” See Janheinz Jahn’s (1961) Muntu: African Culture and the Western World. 12. Prior to meeting Gabrilla, I visited the NOMMO Literary Society and interviewed Salaam as part of my research on participatory literacy communities. He was very helpful in recommending books as well as venues to experience readings and performances. Salaam continues to teach writing and video production to students in New Orleans public schools. He coined the term Neo-Griot to describe this newer generation of writers who tell their stories using video technology. 13. Dr. Nobles is a psychologist and the director of Black Studies at California State University, San Francisco.

Alexander, K. (1998). Forward: Evolution of a new era in Black words. In K. Salaam (Ed.), 360°?: A revolution of Black poets.New Orleans, LA: Black Words. Andrews, W.L., Foster, F.S., & Harris, T. (Eds.). (1997). The Oxford companion to African American literature. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

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Black and Allied Students Association of New York University. (1971, August/September). The East: A model of nationhood. Imani, 5, 28-39. Brown, F. P. (1999). Performing the word: African American poetry as vernacular culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Datcher, M. (2001). Raising fences: A Black man’s love story. New York: Riverhead. Fisher, M. T. (2003a). Choosing literacy: African diaspora participatory literacy communities. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley. Fisher, M. T. (2003b). Open mics and open minds: Spoken word poetry in African diaspora participatory literacy communities. Harvard Educational Review, 73(3), 362-389. Forman, R. (1993). We are the young magicians. Boston: Beacon. Gates, H. L., Jr., & McKay, N. Y. (Eds.). (1997). The Norton anthology of African American literature. New York: Norton. Gutman, H. (1987). Schools for freedom: The post-emancipation origins of Afro-American education. In I. Berlin (Ed.), Power & culture: Essays on the American working class (pp. 260-297). New York: Pantheon. Hansberry, L. (1959). A raisin in the sun: A drama in three acts. New York: Random House. Holt, T. (1990). “Knowledge is power”: The Black struggle for literacy. In A. A. Lunsford, H. Moglen, & J. Slevin (Eds.), The right to literacy (pp. 91-102). New York: Modern Language Association of America. Jahn, J. (1961). Muntu: African Culture and the Western World. New York: Grove. Interview with Hoyt Fuller. (1971). Black Books Bulletin, 1(Fall). Institute of Positive Education. Lee, C. D. (1992). Profile of an independent Black institution: African-centered education at work. Journal of Negro Education, 61(2), 160-177. Lee, D. L. (1971a). Toward a definition: Black poetry of the sixties (after LeRoi Jones). In A. Gayle (Ed.), The Black aesthetic (pp. 235-247). Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Lee, D. L. (1971b). What we’re about. Black Books Bulletin, 1(Fall). Institute of Positive Education. Locke, A. (1925). The new Negro. In A. Locke (Ed.), The new Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (pp. 3-16). New York: Albert & Charles Boni. McDowell, D., & Spillers, H. (1997). Realism, naturalism and modernism. In H. L. Gates Jr., & N. Y. McKay (Eds.), The Norton anthology of African American literature (pp. 13191328). New York: Norton. McHenry, E. (2002). Forgotten readers: Recovering the lost history of African American literary societies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. McHenry, E., & Heath, S. B. (1994). The literate and the literary: African Americans as writers and readers—1830-1940. Written Communication, 11, 419-443. Morris, R. C. (1981). Reading, ‘riting, and reconstruction: The education of freedman in the South 1861-1870. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Muller, L., & the Blueprint Collective. (Eds.). (1995). June Jordan’s poetry for the people: A revolutionary blueprint. New York: Routledge. Neal, L. (1971). The Black arts movement. In A. Gayle (Ed.), The Black aesthetic (pp. 272290). Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Peterson, C. L. (1995). “Doers of the word”: African-American women speakers & writers in the North (1830-1880). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Rampersad, A. (1997). Harlem Renaissance: 1919-1940. In H. L. Gates, Jr., & N. Y. McKay (Eds.), The Norton anthology of African American literature (pp. 929-936). New York: Norton.



Rickford, J. R., & Rickford, R. J. (2000). Spoken soul: The story of Black English. New York: John Wiley. Salaam, K. (Ed.) (with Alexander, K.). (1998). 360°: A revolution of Black poets. New Orleans, LA: Black Words. Smitherman, G. (1999). How I got ovuh: African world view and Afro-American oral tradition. In G. Smitherman (Ed.), Talkin that talk: Language, culture and education in African America (pp. 199-222). London: Routledge. Thompson, J. E. (1998). Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black arts movement in Detroit, 1960-1995. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. Walmsley, A. (1992). The Caribbean artists movement 1966-1972: A literary and cultural history. London: New Beacon. Wright, R. (1940). Native son. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Maisha T. Fisher is an assistant professor in the Division of Educational Studies at Emory University. She recently completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at Teachers College, Columbia University, in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies. Her research interests include sociocultural approaches to literacy learning in school and out-of-school contexts. She is the author of “Open mics and open minds: Spoken word poetry in African diaspora participatory literacy communities” which appeared in the Harvard Educational Review’s special issues on popular culture in 2003.

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