The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College had its official opening in May 2002. The opening celebration was held at the Charles Evans Inniss Memorial Library at the college, with a tribute to the late scholar and poet Calvin C. Hernton. Actor and teacher Avery Brooks served as the event host. Calvin C. Hernton was a noted poet and scholar widely known for his landmark study titled Sex and Racism in America. He was also a prolific writer who published short stories, a novel, and books of poetry. He also cofounded UmbraMagazine, which published the works of Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, and others. Until his retirement in 1999, Hernton was a professor of African-American Studies and creative writing at Oberlin University. He passed of cancer in October 2001. A tribute program to Herndon was held in the Medgar Evers College Auditorium and presenters included Elaine Brown, Steve Cannon, Abba Elethu, Meredith Gadsby, David Henderson, Anton Hernton, Mary O’Callaghan Hernton, Rashidah Abu-Baker Ismali, Haki Madhubuti, Kevin Powell, Ishmael Reed, Eugene Redmond, Sonia Sanchez, and John A. Williams (presented by Arthur Flowers). Spoken-word performances were provided by DuEwa Frazier, jessica Care moore, Tehut Nine, and Kate Rushkin. There was also a special videotaped presentation by Dr. Maya Angelou.
The National Black Writers Conference has been held at Medgar Evers College since 1986. Inspired by the late John Oliver Killens and initially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Conference was first convened over a period of four days to bring together writers, critics, booksellers, book reviewers, and the general public in order to establish a dialogue on the social responsibility of the Black writer. Since 1986, subsequent conferences (1988, 1991, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012) have expanded this conversation to include discussions on stereotypes in Black literature; the direction of Black literature; the renaissance in Black literature; the impact of Black literature on society; literature as access and expanding conversations on race, history, identity, and genre; the ways in which the literature of Black writers transforms the world; the future direction of the literature of Black writers; and the impact of migration, popular culture and the natural environment in the literature of Black writers.
Maya Angelou was the keynote speaker for the first Conference. Additional featured writers at the Conferences have included Toni Cade Bambara, Claude Brown, David Bakish, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, Mari Evans, Ishmael Reed, Quincy Troupe, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, John Edgar Wideman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, John Henrik Clarke, Jayne Cortez, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Walter Mosley, Houston Baker, Stanley Crouch, Terry McMillan, E. Lynn Harris, Colin Channer, Richard Wesley, Stanley Nelson, Eugene Redmond, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Randall Robinson, Marita Golden, and Gil Noble among others.
Dr. Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife of the late civil rights activist Medgar Wiley Evers, was the Honorary Chair for the Eleventh National Black Writers Conference (2012), which included close to one hundred writers who participated in preconference activities such as film screenings, readings, panels, conversations, workshops, etc. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was the keynote speaker. Other featured writers included Ishmael Reed, Anthony Grooms, Nikky Finney, Isabel Wilkerson, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Teju Cole, Tavis Smiley, Camille Dungy, Haki Madhubuti, Bernice McFadden, Jeffery Renard Allen, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Michael Simanga, Nnedi Okorafor, Patricia Smith, Tony Medina, and Tyehimba Jess among others.
Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison was Honorary Chair for the Tenth National Black Writers Conference (2010), which included more than ninety writers, scholars, and performers who participated in panel discussions and readings performances related to themes on literary activism, politics, satire, identity, hip-hop and popular culture, war and natural disaster, speculative fiction, the environment, the Internet, blogging, and publishing. Featured writers included Chris Abani, Sonia Sanchez, Kamau Brathwaite, James McBride, Edwidge Danticat, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Pamela Newkirk, M. G. Vassanji, Tayari Jones, Victor LaValle, Frank Wilderson, Colson Whitehead, Carol Boyce Davies, Breena Clarke, James McBride, Kevin Powell, Toure, Staceyann Chin, Willie Perdomo, Esther Armah, April Silver, Jewel Parker Rhodes, and Tiphanie Yanique among others.
Writer and entrepreneur Susan L. Taylor served as Honorary Chair of the Ninth National Black Writers Conference, which was held March 28, 2008 through March 30, 2008. The Conference theme“Black Writers Reading and Writing to Transform Their Lives and the World”underscored the value of remembering and the importance of using our knowledge of history as a benchmark for reclaiming our past; and in doing so forecasting our future and impacting our lives and the lives of others.
Featured writers, publishers, and agents included among others Cornel West, Randall Robinson, Amiri Baraka, Cheryl and Wade Hudson, Terry McMillan, Julia Wright, David Anthony Durham, , Nathan McCall, Herb Boyd, Ron Daniels, Quincy Troupe, Thulani Davis, asha bandele, Tracy Sherrod, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Brenda Marie Osbey, Patricia Spears Jones, Martha Southgate, Eisa Nefertari Ulen, Thomas Glave, Jerry Ward, Nancy Rawles, Jabari Asim, Valerie Kinloch, Lawrence P. Jackson, and Thomas Bradshaw among others.
At the Eighth National Black Writers Conference, in 2006, Conference panelists responded to the theme of “Black Literature: Expanding Conversations on Race, Identity, History, and Genre.” Authors included Marita Golden, author and head of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, who delivered the address on the Conference theme. Haki Madhubuti, Valerie Wilson Wesley, Walter Mosley, Samuel Delany, Walter Dean Myers, Quincy Troupe, Ishmael Reed, Elizabeth Nunez, Willie Perdomo, Camille Yarborough, Valerie Boyd, Staceyann Chin, Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, Herb Boyd, Christopher John Farley, Sheree Rene Thomas, Abiodun, Jacqueline Woodson, Toni Blackman, Lindamichelle Baron, Obery Hendricks, Carl Hancock Rux, Javaka Steptoe, and Ellease Southerland among others. Mrs. Evers-Williams was the Honorary Conference Chair.
The audience for the National Black Writers Conferences is comprised of people from the New York tristate area, the United States, and all over the world, including Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and Canada. An average of 2,000 people attends the Conference over several days. The Center has also received widespread media coverage for the NBWC, including coverage on C-SPAN Book TV, national television and National Public Radio, and articles in the New York Times, Poets & Writers, The New York Amsterdam News, Our Time Press, The Network Journal, and numerous magazines, newspapers, and journals throughout the country.