Ayo Fayemi-Robinson (aka Kysha N. Brown) came at me hard. Unflinching. With the directness only a good friend or family member can get away with. Why did I do a “males only” writing workshop at Southern University in New Orleans (SUNO)?
Although I had been asked by SUNO administrators to conduct the workshop within specific parameters, Ayo wasn’t buying it. Without referring to the fact that I was hired to do a specific task, I immediately responded that the summer session was almost over and I would voluntarily do a co-ed, Black writers workshop. Shortly thereafter, the NOMMO Literary Society was born.
“Nommo” referred to the Bantu concept of the power of the spoken word, or as the bible says: “in the beginning was the word”.
Each NOMMO session had three parts.
Part one was a study session. I brought in a diverse selection of material: literary and political essays, magazine articles—we even read the entire book The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain. Took turns reading aloud. Even members who had major problems reading. “Read at least one paragraph,” I counseled. No one was laughed at. Anyone who needed help was gladly given assistance.
Part two was what we called housekeeping. Basically we discussed our workshop business and shared announcements concerning relevant events and issues, including announcements of upcoming programs of interest: who is coming to town, speaking at such and such place, date and time.
Part three we took turns reading our work and receiving responses (both critical and laudatory) from members.
Once a month at Community Book Center (Vera Warren proprietor and Mama Jennifer Turner manager) we would do free and wide open public readings. Each member would read and then we would invite anyone in the audience who also wanted to share to step forward and share at the podium (which was painted by member Gabrilla Ballard).
We also actively encouraged feedback; told folk they could say whatever they thought or felt about anything they heard or anything that might be on their mind. Our readings were riotous affairs, sometimes full of laughter, other times seriously focusing on some or the other troubling affair that was going down.
We started on Brainard Street in the offices of Bright Moments, an advertising and public relations company founded by Bill Rouselle and Kalamu ya Salaam. Within five or six years of our founding in September 1995, the workshop moved to my office on Treme Street, where we established a 5000-plus library, from which members could freely borrow. I specialized in Afro-centric literature. We also had a major literary reference section (old and new dictionaries, atlas, and specialized reference books) as well as selected works of philosophy, politics, sociology, and culture.
(NOMMO members: Marian Moore, Kysha N. Brown, Aum Ra Frezel, Carol Santos, Lynn Pitts, Keturah Kendrick, Kalamu ya Salaam, Jarvis DeBerry, Mawiyah Kai El-Jamah Bomani, Nadir Lasana Bomani, Mack Dennis, Chris Williams. Not pictured: Gabrilla Ballard, Karen Celestan, Freddi Williams Evans, Stephanie Hope, Glen Joshua, and Saddi Khali)
We planned for a grand ten-year celebration in September 2005. Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans late August 2005. Members scattered. The workshop never got back together.
Much like scattering seeds in turbulent winds, our dispersal turned out to be a major development. Numerous manuscripts were transformed into books from Runagate Press and a variety of other publishers. Who would have thunk that a small grouping of aspiring writers would turn out over twenty full-length books?
Kysha and I edited Fertile Ground–Memories & Visions (Runagate Press 1996). This was a first publication and represented an auspicious and in some ways both inclusive and audacious debut. Fertile Ground included contributions from a wide range of guest writers including Kofi Anyidoho of Ghana, West Africa, and Kamau Brathwaite of Barbados, West Indies, plus the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective and the Griot Workshop (Liverpool, England). This was the first of an ever growing number of Runagate Press books.
We Black poets in the deep south had not received much national attention after the barnstorming days of the Free South Theatre, careening across the south in the sixties. FST featured the work of playwrights who were local, national, and even international. As one share-cropper wryly observed about FST’s signature production of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist drama, Waiting For Godot, “that fellow, Godot, ain’t coming.”
After Malcolm’s assassination in 1965 and Martin Luther Kings murder in 1968, we all realized that help was not on the way. If we wanted salvation, we would have to save ourselves, and organize our people and our allies in opposition to a recalcitrant “status crow” (as our Bajan brother Brathwaite aptly and accurately identified the status quo).
The intense struggles of the sixties Civil Rights movement led directly to an inward-oriented outgrowth of FST– BLKARTSOUTH, a younger, Black power-oriented poetry and performance ensemble. Poetry of that seventies-era outpouring was serious business, even its caustic comedy had a take-no-prisoners, combative flavor.
No surprise, then, that we opened the last decade of the 20th century with a poetry collection pridefully, extolling the Red, the Black, and the Green liberation colors. Signaling our historic assessment of the previous decade, we titled the collection WORD UP–Black Poetry Of The 80s From The Deep South (Beans and Brown Rice Publishers 1990).
During the last decade of the 20th century, I produced What Is Life?-Reclaiming The Black Blues Self (Third World Press 1994), a major memoir and meditation on the zigs and zags of my life from sixties Civil Rights, to seventies Black Power and the Black Liberation Movement. By the beginning of the new decade in year 2000, I had traveled to Ghana, Tanzania, Zanzibar in Africa; England, France and Germany in Europe; South Korea, China and Japan in Asia; all across the Caribbean, including my favorite island of Barbados; as well as brief sojourns in Brazil and Suriname in South America. In between my international travel, I also visited most of the states of the USA.
In 1998, as we closed out the 20th century, I worked on two poetry anthologies, one local in orientation and the other national in scope. Fortunately I personally knew or knew of a wide circle of poets. As a result I was able to cast a wide net attracting an enchanting diversity of voices for a new anthology.
From A Bend In The River–100 New Orleans Poets (Runagate Press 1998) assembled a multi-ethnic conglomeration of wordsmiths reflecting a rainbow of tongues in the city we considered “the bottom of the bucket”. Located near the end of the Mississippi River, New Orleans was the last major USA port, situated just north of a roots-like flowering of out-flowing tributaries that emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.
New Orleans is historically, and remains in the 21st century, one of the major points of both ingress and egress for and from the southern United States. Our oft celebrated “Crescent City”, because of its location, nestled in the arm-pit of a deep turn in the ever flowing river, albeit with numerous paths to the gulf, is a veritable linguistic, ethnic, and cultural crossroads, that is predominately Afro-centric in make-up but has generous helpings of Jewish, Italian, and German peoples, along with diverse ethnic pockets of East European and, in more recent years, Vietnamese peoples.
While Bend considers a broad sweep of ethnic influences, 360-degrees A Revolution Of Black Poets (Runagate Press 1998), co-edited by Kalamu ya Salaam and Kwame Alexander, focuses solely on Black Poets
Seventeen years after WORD UP we produced a major document. The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement (Third World Press 2007). Although JuJu was a deep dive into the history of the Black Arts Movement, this book actually initiated a new wave of publishing featuring writers from NOMMO who had now artistically come of age.
Kysha Brown Robinson’s poetry book, Spherical Woman (Runagate Press 2009) was our second post-Katrina publication. It took us a minute to dry out and get ourselves back together. But once we got started, wasn’t no quit in our giddy-up.
Freddi Williams Evans is a major author of historically-based books for young readers and adults. Her works include A Bus of Our Own (Albert Whitman & Company 2001) with illustrations by Shawn Costello.
The Battle of New Orleans: The Drummer’s Story (Pelican Press 2005), with illustrations by Emile Henriquez, shares with its readers the inspiring story of Jordan Noble whose drumbeats accompanied and inspired the defense against the invading British army.
Evans delves into the semi-secret religious gatherings known as “hush harbors”. For many readers these activities will be a major revelation. Evans’ book Hush Harbor: Praying in Secret (Carolrhoda Books 2008) is illustrated by Erin Bennett Banks.
New Orleans is near synonymous with jazz. NOMMO member Karen Celestan undertook the task of co-writing Harold Battiste Jr.’s autobiography, Unfinished Blues (University of Virginia Press 2010). It’s a delicate, and sometimes even difficult, dance to work with an author who is also the subject of the writing. Telling the truth is difficult enough without the pressure of attempting to be both honest and to present the subject in the best of lights. Ms. Celestan proved to be up to the task. She seamlessly worked with Harold Battiste to gift us with a culturally colorful story that simultaneously manages to get its facts straight.
Freddi Williams Evans has two important history books on Congo Square in New Orleans, a site that is often considered a major genesis of African American dance and musical culture. The first book is Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans (University of Louisiana at Lafayette 2011).
Freddi W. Evans went on to produce Come Sunday: A Young Reader’s History of Congo Square. This is an important book that includes copious historical references and illustrations. (University of Louisiana at Lafayette 2011).
Everybody know we some second-lining somebodies. Dance in the street at the drop of a hat. NOMMO member Karen Celestan and photographer Eric Waters (my high school classmate) have put together a definitive book with amazing photos celebrating the way we carry on in the streets and by-ways of New Orleans. Freedom’s Dance: Social, Aid and Pleasure Clubs in New Orleans (LSU Press 2018) features stunning photographs and a narrative that presents a cadre of knowledgeable writers who line out the comings and goings of this street tradition endemic to New Orleans.
A collection of writings by my mentor, New Orleans Griot—The Tom Dent Reader (Runagate Press 2018) was named the One Book One New Orleans 2020 selection.
We produced Be About Beauty (Runagate Press 2018), my collection of essays, featuring on the cover, a detail from an extraordinary tapestry by fiber artist Adriene Cruz. This book won a 2019 award from PEN Oakland.
Our next publication, Louisiana Midrash (Runagate Press 2019) was a doozy of a curve ball: an Afro-Jewish, poetic reinterpretation of Biblical stories, Greek literature and contemporary reflections by Marian D. Moore.
Award winning poet Jericho Brown is a NOMMO alumnus who has three important collections: New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), Please (New Issues 2008), and Pulitzer Prize winner, The Tradition (Coppr Canyon 2019).
Keturah Kendrick is a Nichiren Buddhist, who describes herself as a New Orleanian by birth and a New Yorker by choice. She is a self-determing woman who is simultaneously serious as well as witty. She vigorously interrogates what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. She finds herself literally creating her own path as she travels through life. No Thanks: Black, Female, and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone is her significant book (She Writes Press 2019).
Journalist Jarvis DeBerry was a member of the Pulitzer Prize winning team that reported on the Katrina/New Orleans drowning and resurrection. His book, I Feel To Believe, is an insightful dissection of New Orleans (Runagate Press 2020).
This is a diverse catalogue of literary work that reflects the open-ended and wide-ranging interests that were accepted and celebrated by our NOMMO Black writers workshop. This vibrant circle of scribes have taken up the task of gathering and assembling puzzle pieces of life experiences and cultural practices. We are just now getting our second wind. There is a whole lot more to come.
Moreover, we did not demand nor encourage a specific school of writing. Never trod on just one-way streets. Back alleys, open fields, interstate highways and trails through the woods, NOMMO was a cohort of new-age explorers who traveled howsoever the terrain demanded in order to get to where we wanted to go.
NOMMO promoted the widest range of literary expressions that our authors were capable of crafting. Members of our little workshop produced major works indicative of both serious and broad-based literature.
Honest writing was, and will always be, our calling card. Tell the truth. Shame the devil. Every little thing is going to be alright. And guess what, we ain’t no ways tired; not even close to thru with this writing thing. Still got miles to go. Deep in our suit sachets and leather pouches, we got more than a handful of both minor as well as major literary contributions to create and offer up to our people and to the whole wide world.
Moreover, as both Malcolm and Martin found out, what you see when you get to the mountaintop is the next mountain you’re going to have to climb.
To be continued. Surely. Much more to come. . .
–Kalamu ya Salaam
July 2020, New Orleans