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Blacks in Stacks

Coppin Literary Meeting Highlights a Growing Movement

By Michael Anft | Posted 3/28/2001

When Ann Cobb wandered into Sibanye Inc., a bookstore in Northwest Baltimore's Arlington neighborhood, one day last year, she mentioned to owner Robin Green that she was an assistant humanities professor at Coppin State College. Green saw an opportunity. "[Cobb] opened up her mouth and let me know who she was," Green says, laughing. "And," Cobb interjects, "[Green] said, 'You know what I really want to do? I want to have a literary conference in Baltimore.'"

From that conversation sprang Write Now! An African-American Literary Experience, which made its debut last spring with 68 authors and speakers and 85 attendees. This year, Cobb and Green are following it up with Write Now 2!, which promises the participation of dozens more writers, teachers, publishers, book lovers, and others devoted to the black literary world. Although the March 30-31 conference is a logistical nightmare--"We had no idea that this would ruin our lives," Cobb jokes--it still qualifies as a labor of love for the professor and the merchant, both of whom have an abiding interest in furthering the cause of the literary arts locally.

For Green, who opened Sibanye six years ago, the conference represents a continuation of sorts of her work lining up speakers for the store's booth at the annual Baltimore Book Fair. Typically, she would bring 40 authors to the fair to chat with fans and sign books. "The part missing at the book fairs was workshops," Green says. "There are so many aspiring authors in Baltimore who need to be exposed to publishers and editors and publicists. I can't tell you how many people come in and ask me how to get published--and I haven't published a thing."

Getting publishers to send their African-American authors to Baltimore was a problem, however. "[Publishing houses] send their writers to Washington for conferences," Green says. "I'd always wanted to do a conference here, but it didn't seem possible"--until last year, when she managed to persuade some publishers to cooperate, thanks to Coppin's participation and her consistent cajoling.

For Cobb, Write Now 2! offers a chance to fulfill Coppin's stated mission to promote hands-on learning to those in the inner city, showcase her best student writers, and celebrate the success of alumni such as Odessa Rose, whose first novel, Water in a Broken Glass, was released by a small press in New York last year. Rose will be speaking at the conference along with other writers with local roots, including Nichelle D. Tramble (The Dying Ground : A Hip-Hop Noir Novel) and Mary B. Morrison (Soul Mates Dissipate). "It's important to keep the legacy going," Cobb says.

Write Now 2! arrives during heady times for African-American authors--far from the days of the 42-year-old Green's youth in Grove Park, when the only books available in school on black subjects were biographies of the likes of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman (many of them penned by whites). With the high profiles attained by the likes of Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan, and E. Lynn Harris, major publishers have begun to view the black book-buying public as a sizable market and African-American authors as hot commodities. Seven major New York publishers have introduced imprints--target-marketed publishing brands--based on black subjects, such as Random House's Striver's Row, named after the stretch of Harlem that once housed the black bourgeoisie. "I think this is the best period for African-American literature since the Harlem Renaissance" of in the 1920s and '30s, Green says.

Although no stars of McMillan's ilk will appear at Coppin, Green and Cobb have lined up dozens of speakers, including keynoter Bill Cox, president and editor of Black Issues Book Review. Cox started the magazine in 1999, thinking he might be able to sign up 10,000 subscribers. The magazine's circulation is now 75,000. "What's gone on in the last 10 years is simply amazing," he says. "What has happened is like an explosion. There are writers everywhere, and the audience is mushrooming."

Green says the trend is evident in Baltimore. "The literary renaissance is really spurring people on to create," she says. "I'm glad we have a place for all of these people to meet now."

Write Now2! An African-American Literary Experience runs March 30 and 31 at various locations on the Coppin State College campus. Registration costs $40 and will be held at Coppin's Tawes Center. For more information, call Robin Green at (410) 358-5806.

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