After the first Breaking Ground excursion to the USA in November 2015 we asked the Black British writers who were part of the tour to write a short piece about their experience of being part of it. Read about Karen McCarthy Woolf’s American experience:
When I edited Bittersweet: Black Women’s Contemporary Poetry (The Women’s Press) back in the late 1990s I was keen to draw the circle of inclusion as widely as possible. Amongst the writers whose work I anthologized, were authors with roots in Hawaii, Malaysia, as well as the Caribbean, USA, Africa and India. In addition to some of the top African American poets at the time, including Rita Dove, Maya Angelou and Toi Derricote, I was also alert to a rich and diverse poetry scene in the UK. Our stories interconnected with those from our American counterparts, but the history and cultural narrative of black people in Britain has always been distinct from that of the US.
Fast forward to 2015, and the success of Claudia Rankine’s award-winning volume Citizen has revitalised an awareness of why race (and black lives) matter(s). However, as we celebrate our international writers of colour, it’s also important that black British voices are heard, not just in the UK, but also overseas and particularly in America, where many of us have family, friends and cultural connections, but comparatively little exposure.
So, this is the longer story and context that surrounds my first trip to America’s South as part of Breaking Ground, a black British writers’ tour organised by Speaking Volumes. As one of ten authors, that included not just poets but also novelists, non-fiction and travel writers, I was excited to present my work to new and influential audiences. And to read with writers across genre! After all, we don’t only write novels or poems exclusively, so why separate us at readings?
My first engagement was in Atlanta, Georgia at Emory College, where US poet laureate Natasha Trethewey heads up the creative writing faculty. There I gave an ‘interactive’ reading from my book An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet, 2014) to two seminar groups. I use the word interactive as I don’t just read then do a Q&A but intersperse poems with conversation about form and compositional choices. Emory also houses an impressive library and specialist collection curated by the poet Kevin Young and many sumptuous first editions and ms material from Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes to Alice Walker.
Next stop was Charleston, South Carolina, where the rest of the crew were congregating after various similar engagements across the country. Specifically, we were joining ASWAD – The Association for the Study of the Worldwide Diaspora, where African American professors and students of history, politics, anthropology and literature were gathered for their biennial conference. We networked and socialised away over the weekend, sitting out in the hotel courtyard and admiring the local flora and trees dripping with a lichen called Spanish moss in the southern November sun. If it wasn’t for the fighter jets roaring overhead on their way to and from the nearby military base, and the fact that the hotel was minutes from the Emanuel AME Baptist Church and site of the Charleston massacre just months before in June, it might have been easy to forget that we were in a nation engaged in bloody conflict, both at home and overseas. Despite the beauty of the landscape, the sublime culinary delights that included deep fried gherkins (what joy!), the many friendly people we met along the way and the brevity of our stay — the pressure the African American community is facing on a national level, although not instantly apparent, was a tangible, ever-present undercurrent.
Our reading was the showcase event, and it was an excitement to get to know the work of our colleagues in more detail. It was also an honour to receive a standing ovation from an audience who were equally responsive to my book of elegiac poems written for my baby son as they were to Johnny Pitts’ fascinating photographic project AfroPeans, which celebrates and maps a diverse contemporary Europe at a time of mass migration and disruption.
A highlight of the trip was the character and gregarious energy of our taxi drivers – in both Atlanta and Charleston — whose commentary and storytelling was colourful and insightful. I was most struck by the driver of our shuttlebus who ferried us back and forth from the conference centre to the hotel each day.
‘What!!?’ she exclaimed in amazement, ‘y’all mean to say there’s BLACK folks in Eng-land!?’
‘Yes’, we chorused from our seats behind her, ‘We’re here!’.