In honor of Black History Month, IYE is dedicated to highlighting inspiring community members of the Twin Cities to share their stories, and personal connections and unique perspectives on the history we celebrate as a nation. Meet Chaun Webster.
I thought it fitting to seek out someone in the Twin Cities’ literary community to highlight Black literature and their perspectives on works they find moving. That search led me to Minneapolis-based poet and publisher, Chaun Webster. Highlighted on Minnesota Public Radio‘s Art Hounds, a 2011 Intermedia Arts Verve grant recipient, presenter at the Loft Literary Center‘s nationally-acclaimed Equilibrium (EQ) series and holding down a courageously outspoken Twin Cities publishing platform for Black literature, I was curious to find out what Chaun loves about the genre, a few book recommendations in honor of this month and advice on how to incorporate reading into a fast-paced, email-driven informational landscape. Here’s what he shared. -Adjoa
For the Love of Black Literature
“Things I love about Black literature…I love the tragicomic hope of Toni Morrison, the nuanced rhythms of June Jordan’s poetry, and the step-ahead-innovativeness of Audre Lorde. I love our ability to evolve the imprisoning norms of what Black literature “is”. We evolve because we must, because this word-work is spirit-work and we’ve wrapped a powerful magic in it. Hear it in the spirit dance of Ben Okri’s, Famished Road, or the Parables of Octavia Butler. There is something quite stunning about how for African peoples who are a part of this North American Diaspora, for whom reading and writing were made illegal, that we stubbornly persist to name and rename ourselves. The things I love about our literature could go on for days.”
“I’m a fiction geek. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy reading non-fiction, because I do. I just enjoy the innovativeness of narrative. I love the women that Edwidge Danticat creates because they are “like us” (see Krik, Krak), they are as real as my mother, and her mother before her. Women dressed in Brooklyn, or the spiny southern world of [Zora Neale] Hurston, I am constantly under its spell. Many I fear cast an unfortunate disregard over fiction, over its ability to speak to material issues. I’ve found that through fiction I’ve been able to locate and speak to material issues more creatively.”
Journey to the Past and Back…to the Future
“Publishing has been a serious and subversive part of the history of African America, rich with insights, instruction. Whether reading the advanced anti-slavery position of David Walker’s Appeal or the poetry published through presses like Broadside Press, Lotus Press, and Third World Press during the Black Arts Movement, African America has shown itself self-determining and steadfast. Without the determination of publishers like Dudley Randall who started Broadside Press out of his home in Detroit, or Haki Madhubuti who started Third World Press out of his apartment on Chicago’s Southside with $450 and a mimeograph machine, there would be a vastly different story of American letters. Knowledge production is important – and for more than just matters of cognition; but because language frames how we perceive, understand and act within the world.
“That is why linguicide has been such a constant variable of colonialism, because the destruction of language obstructs important pathways to resistance. But to site again the flawed but fantastically important work of Broadside and Third World Press scholars like Melba Boyd, note the connection between Broadside’s output and the resistance of the student lead Third World Liberation Front in 1969 out of which we saw the emergence of Ethnic Studies. What literature do you suppose framed the language and posture of those students demands? Furthermore what literature do you suppose populated the curriculum of those emerging ethnic studies courses? The link between the work of these press’s and resistance movements is unfortunately often not an intuitive one in scholarly research.
“In 2009 I founded Free Poet’s Press with much of this in mind. No longer willing to wait to be ‘discovered’ and full of too much pride from my herstory, I set out to make something in the spirit of our ancestors protractive struggle. The goals initially were summarily to, ‘…take back our inherent right to create and own what we’ve created having our own rubric for analyzing it and the onus for determining its purpose and distribution.’ Starting by publishing my own work and with a steep learning curve to close, I began to research and experiment with ways to publish more effectively, and to make the work more accessible to poor and working class Black and Brown communities. I am by no means alone in this work but to be sure those who come to this work with the politics that I come with are few. It is my hope that the mark I will leave will be one that defies the modern capitalist notions of knowledge production, more specifically, whose knowledge is legitimate.
“Currently with five published works I feel more confident in this role and this year marks the exciting move towards taking on publishing projects outside of my own. An upcoming project is a biomythography I’ve been working on for a little over a year called, because when we say NAT, it be writ large. This book is about Nat Turner who went into hiding for two months post [slave] rebellion. That blank space in the historical record intrigued me as did the blank spaces generally in the record we have on Nat Turner. This is why I chose to go the route of biomythography so as to fold the historical record, myth and personal narrative and build a mythology of power/resistance. It is introduced by Poet and Cal Arts Professor Douglass Kearney and is one of my most ambitious works to date. Look for it this March.”
Reading is Fun-da-mental
“You have to find your rhythm. Make a schedule, listen to a book on tape/cd, make it a priority. Read with others (book club anyone?), have someone read to you; make it a practice and it will pay dividends. As for books I suggest, there are many. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading some of our local authors, be sure to check out work from Amoke Kubat, Shannon Gibney, and Ibé Kaba, to name a few. If I could highlight one work of fiction and non-fiction literature that have been life changing, I would say to pick up and devour Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde and The Famished Road by Ben Okri. To be sure, there are a myriad more, but these are particularly meaningful to me. Read on and dare to be powerful.”
Twin Cities-based Chaun Webster is a Poet/Graphic Designer/Publisher who founded Free Poet’s Press in 2009. His work focuses on disrupting the norms of knowledge production and the assumed “legitimate” meaning makers. Webster’s poetry is influenced by Jazz, the Black Arts Movement and Concrete Poetry Tradition. To contact Chaun, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org